Passions and Obsessions

Priest’s life-long fight
about first Mass in PH

In controversial move, Fr. Joesilo Amalla publishes book claiming it was held in the long lost island of Mazaua in Mindanao

Fr. Joesilo Amalla has done research on the island Mazaua for 47 years. (Photo courtesy of Fr. Joesilo Amalla)

Fr. Joesilo C. Amalla, a Catholic priest in the Butuan Diocese of Butuan, is the author of the recently published history book, An Island They Called Mazaua.

The book has been the subject of controversy this month, in the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the advent of Christianity in the Philippines and the coming of Magellan. The book asserts that the true site of the first Mass in the Philippines is the now lost island of Mazaua in Mindanao. The book presents testimonies, historical documentation, and geographic and nautical data in an attempt to debunk that Limasawa Island in the Visayas was the site of the first Mass— a historical fact that has been affirmed thrice by government bodies and concurred by the Catholic Church hierarchy.

This Q/A shows how the Catholic priest has made it his life-long advocacy to research on and propagate the belief that Mazaua was the site of the first Mass in the country—a passion that is an interesting story in itself.

Can you tell us about your parish work and life in Butuan?

I was ordained priest on April 3, 1990 at Butuan’s St. Joseph Cathedral with nine other priests. Immediately we were assigned to different missions for the Diocese of Butuan. Then I was assigned as seminary formator in different parishes. My last assignment was at St. Vincent Ferrer as parish administrator. By April 3 this year I will have been 31 years a Catholic priest.

The controversial book

What motivated you to research on the first Mass in the Philippines, and to write your book?

I wasn’t trained as a historian, but I had a passion for reading history books; it was a passion that grew and grew in the ensuing years.

In my elementary days I was taught that it was in Limasawa Island that the first Holy Mass in the Philippines was celebrated; this was according to the history textbook we used at the time, Your Country and Mine, Ty-Garcia-Maceda, © 1954, p. 87).

In my second year at the Agusan High School in 1974, however, my interest was drawn to another history book. It cited Butuan-Calagan as the site of that first Mass and that Mazaua kings were present in the historic event. I did further research about this in college, first at the Mindanao State University in Marawi and then at the University of San Carlos in Cebu. Although my major was psychology, I started reading and collecting more history books about the issue.

Particularly after entering the seminary in Cebu, I would go back to the University of San Carlos. I’d literally imprison myself in its library’s  Filipiniana section. There, history books written in Spanish were untouched and gathering dust. This greatly widened my understanding of what clearly was a hoax that Limasawa was the first Mass site.

Later, when I founded the Butuan Liturgical museum and was appointed its curator, I would be asked by many museum visitors and students about Butuan’s claim in history that it was indeed the site of that first Mass. I loved to relate to them the story and also often mentioned it in my homilies during Mass.

I had the chance to meet Jaime Cardinal Sin, who encouraged me to do more research on the first Mass

On June 3, 1995, I had the chance to meet Jaime Cardinal Sin, who was then the Archbishop of Manila. The good Cardinal encouraged and greatly inspired me to do more research on the subject of the first Mass in our country. He gave me permission to see and go over the oldest Church document in the Archdiocesan Archives of Manila in Intramuros—the Anales Ecclesiasticos de Philipinas, 1574.

Since the start of your research, where have you gone and what have you done?
By October 1995, I had the good fortune of having a Europe trip sponsored to do more research on the subject. My research in major libraries and museums in key cities of Europe gave me more opportunities to read and “feel” the primary sources of Pigafetta’s chronicles and several other primary historical sources.

I discovered in the chronicles that the Easter Mass in the Philippines during the Magellanic fleet’s sojourn in our shores was definitely and incontrovertibly said in Mazaua of Butuan and not in Limasawa, Leyte. From Europe I brought home to the Philippines a trove of books and materials I collected from the libraries, archives and book stores in the different countries I visited. I lent some of these documentary material to my research soulmate in the Philippines, Vicente de Jesus, for it was he who was commissioned by City of Butuan to write about the first Mass and I was just to do the research.

Vic de Jesus and I—he in Manila and I in Butuan—shared resources and spent long hours on the phone discussing the matter, unmindful of the long distance call bills. (There were no cellphones yet at that time!) In Butuan City, my big brother in history was our neighbor—Greg Hontiveros. The two of us shared a passion for history, and we would represent Butuan in seminars and conventions on the subject. Together we also helped Butuan prepare and organize history and culture celebrations.

I also went into language preservation. I collected Butuanon words from my parishioners. While hearing the confessions of old folk and giving them added penances, I would ask them to list down all the indigenous Butuanon words they could remember. It was something they willingly complied with and even enjoyed as a form of mental exercise.

Inspired by my engagement in Butuan’s Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), I started collecting and now have a total of 8,000 words in my “listahan” (collection). It was at this time that I found out that the word “masawa” was a part of the vernacular of my Butuanon-Manobo father—not the vernacular of my Leyteña mother. Later, my membership in the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, particularly my involvement in its committee on monuments and sites, strengthened my love of heritage, culture, and history.

How did you get started and what have you discovered in your research?

It was Bishop Nereo Odchimar of Tandag who encouraged me 12 years ago—this was on July 27, 2008 at the Cantilan Parish Convent in Surigao del Sur—to write a book on the first Holy Mass. This was hours before he ordained one of my students at the St. Peter Seminary in Butuan City.

Back in the cathedral convent in Butuan, I immediately got my notebook and wrote the things I would discuss in the book. From the historiographic records I had read and studied that far, it was the Trattto della sfera that provided me the most enlightening insights and realizations. The Trattto della sfera was the scientific treatise on navigation written by Antonio Pigafetta—the official chronicler of the Magellan Expedition—that somehow was deliberately kept from public knowledge from 1899 to 1994.

That treatise specifically showed how to locate Mazaua Island very precisely by using the value of Pigafeta’s legua indicated in his chronica (The Philippine Islands, vol. 33, p. 67 and Trattato della sfera in Primo viaggio intorno al mondo, p. 194).That specification was this: “ogni lega per mare e quarto millia e per terra tre,” in English— “every league is four miles at sea and on land three.”

Pigafetta wrote in his chronica that Mazaua to Cebu via Catigan (Green Point today, 11 km northwest of Maasin City) was 20 leguas and Catigan to Cebu 15 leguas = 35 leguas. Convert this into nautical miles using the 4-mile value of Pigafetta’s legua). In sum, this yields the 140 nautical mile distance from Butuan at 9 degrees, latitude North… (I’ll stop this computation now so as not to confuse the reader or listener, but those keenly interested in the exact values to be arrived at in this computation can find them in my book.)

There are more things to be discovered about our history by Filipinos and foreigners alike (even without a PhD attached to their name) if they simply decide to be open-minded and honest, and to overcome conceit and, better still, find time to read my book.

What are the reactions to your findings?

My research for An Island They Called Mazaua took me 47 long years. I undertook it without the approval and assistance of my fellow priests, and it was assailed all along by historians who think themselves as infallible by virtue of their PhDs. This was the very real heavy cross I had to carry to bring the book to completion and to get it finally published. Many of those in the academic world, especially men of the cloth like myself, may not believe me and my conclusions about the site of the first Mass but they don’t really need to take my word for it.

They should instead read the sources I used and analyze them with a critical eye. Historians are not infallible and must not be arrogant. In particular, many of them criticize Ferdinand Magellan but this is because they are clueless about the amazing thing he was able to accomplish when the ship Victoria, the lone survivor of the five-ship Magellan expedition, was able to circumnavigate the world for the first time ever. With that voyage, Magellan demonstrated, even if posthumously, that the globe was round and that the waters of the sea were all connected to one big navigable ocean.

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