History of the Cofradia

History of the Cofradia


In the Preamble to the Constitution and By-Laws which are hereby promulgated the framers of the document specify the reasons why it was necessary to have it drawn; given the pervasive practice of the devotion to the Santo Niño among our people through the centuries and the importance of enhancing and further strengthening this devotion, the need has become imperative to organize the devotees in local Chapters and into a national body for the enlightening  of the membership, for uniformity of procedures, for safeguard against extremisms and divisiveness, and for proper coordination.

Awareness also that a regulatory document is only an instrument which would be lifeless without the proper response on the part of the people from whom it is intended, the legislators carefully spell out in Article 2 of the Constitution the objectives of the Cofradia which, at the personal, familial, parochial and national levels, are primarily spiritual but also social and meant to contribute to the upliftment of our people in their various dimensions.

None of these objectives, however, can be achieved and fittingly sustained as a general rule without a certain measure of information and without the support of formalized expressions of devotion for both individual and community use, so that each devotee may address himself personally to the Santo Niño in love, adoration and petition or do so in spiritual and physical association with others, always conscious that throughout our country there arises everyday an all-sweeping wave of homage and adoration to Our Lord Who has chosen to bless us with the symbolic gift of the beloved Image enshrined in Cebu.

It is for these reasons that the following pages are written to introduce the Constitution and By-Laws. It is also for these reasons that a Missal Senor Santo Niño has been compiled by Fr. Eduardo Perez, OSA, and, duly and gladly approved by the ecclesiastical authority, has been made available to every devotee of our Señor Santo Niño.

The Santo Niño Image

Most images venerated in Christendom have had their origins in unverifiable legend. This, of course, does not in any manner detract from the validity of the devotion of the people and from the authenticity of many of the miracles attributed to the images, for the image is but the symbol or visible sign of the realty for which they stand. Nor does the variety of images and appellations diminish or divide the allegiance of the people to that one reality which is the one that we truly love and honor. It is the same Blessed Mother, for, instance, whom we revere in her various images and to whom we pray under various appellations and all the appellations are valid because She contains all those attributes in the splendour of her perfection. It is the same infant Jesus Whom we adore when we kneel before one or another of His images, and our preference of one image over another is justified by reasons which have to do with our inclinations, or needs, our inheritance or our place, just as the reverence of the theologian or the intellectual or the uneducated, or the grown up as well as of the child, is justified not only because we all, even in our religion, must see and feel and touch but also because we are duty-bound to worship not only with our souls but also with our senses.

The image of the Santo Niño of Cebu did not come to us shrouded in the mist of legend: its origin and discovery and the sequence of events that caused its presence in Cebu have long been as well documented as any fact in the history of our country’s past can be. Still, there was in that sequence a touch of the romantic that makes the story worth telling once more, and there was in the discovery of the image a proof to the weary Spaniards that all would yet be well in a land and among people that at first appeared anything but hospitable and cordial.

In truth, and for reasons the Spaniards could not fathom, all seemed to have gone wrong on the 28 April 1565 when the men of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi lit upon the beaches of Cebu. The encounter between the unfriendly inhabitants and the alien soldiers did not augur well, and Legazpi, man of peace and of prudent ways, caused the Augustinian Andres de Urdaneta land with the soldiers to attempt prevent a fight between the wary inhabitants and the soldiery, frazzled of nerves and warlike in mood after the long passage from Mexico. No one knows who provoked the fire, but much of the town was destroyed, and the population took to the hills behind. The usual search of the remaining houses ensued, but nothing of value was to be fund in any, except for one in which one of the sailors hit upon a chest bound with a cord which clearly was of Spanish make. Inside the chest a second box was found and in it a statuette clad in velvet and with a red cap on its head. Two fingers of the right hand of the statue were raised and extended as in blessing, and the left hand held a gilded globe. The image was obviously well preserved, with “just the tip of the nose rubbed off somewhat and the skin coming off its face”, and it was clear that, for whatever reasons, the image had been kept with the care afforded an object considered sacred.

Veterans of European campaigns easily identified the statue as an effigy of the Holy Child Jesus, most likely of the Flemish variety, and those familiar with religious practices remembered that the devotion to the Holy Child, increasingly popular in Spain from the beginning of the XVI century, had fast spread to other countries in Europe, including the Netherlands which at the time was one of the realms of the King of Spain. It was further noticed that the customary cross was missing from the gilded globe; but there was no question that the image was Christian, and then it was brought to Legazpi he knelt before it, took it in his hands, kissed it, and proclaimed before his men that the finding of the statue was indeed an auspicious omen, announcing further that the grounds where it had been found and the surrounding area would be reserved for  a church and monastery in which the Holy Child would henceforth be enshrined for the veneration of all the future generations.

The official document of the foundation; drawn by chief Clerk Hernando Riquel and countersigned by Legazpi, reads:

“I, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, by the King’s grace Governor of these islands and Captain General of the Army and the Fleet, carrying out the orders of His Majesty, caused a fort to be built upon my arrival in Cebu to which the people could repair in case of need.

                         Father Andres de Urdaneta, Prior of the Augustinians, who came with me in the fleet, requested me to reserve for the construction of a monastery and church the lot where the image of the Holy Child was discovered, as well as the area around it, and this I readily did. In my presence and in that of the Chief Clerk, whose signature appears below, the Prior took possession of the land, and present were also many others, none of whom raised any objection.

                         Father Diego de Herrera, the Augustinian, who has now replaced Father Urdaneta, has asked me to make official the donation of the land, with the proper legal instrument drawn to this effect, that the Fathers may proceed to build. In consequence, I do hereby order the document to be drawn and the permission given to begin construction of the monastery and church, without hindrance from anyone.

                         Given in Cebu this 6 October 1567. Signed, Hernando Riquel, Chief Clerk. Signed, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi.”

             After the initial joy of the surprise, the questions of the discovery of the image posed set the imaginations playing in search of satisfying answers. By whom and when had it been brought to Cebu, to what purpose had it been left there, and why had it preserved in such curious raiments and with such evident care? Surmises of all sorts were promptly advanced, and those made regarding the essential questions were eventually to be proved correct; but the final documentary proof was to wait until Pigafetta’s chronicle was at last published in the XIX century.

The image was European, and so were two culverins which were also found at the time in the town. But of all the successive expeditions to the Far East, only that of Magellan was known to have reached Cebu – where indeed the leader first and then a large number of his best officers and men had met their deaths. Only the Magellan expedition, then, could have left behind the statue, and so it was reported as fact in Mexico by Father Urdaneta and those who returned with him along the sea-lane the galleons would follow for centuries. How much Urdaneta knew of what actually did transpire in Cebu almost half a century earlier regarding the image of the Santo Niño was never recorded but the adventurer turned friar had travelled with Elcano, and Elcano had been with Magellan in Cebu, and the sea voyages were long in those days, and sailors have long memories and are known to indulge in story-telling. In any case, early as well as later historians either took for granted the bare fact that Magellan left behind the statue or simply preferred to ignore it in their chronicles until Pigafetta’s account came to fill in the details. After describing the baptism of King Humabon, of many of the notables and of a crowd of about five hundred, the chronicler continues:

“After dinner, the chaplain and many of us went back to land to baptize the Queen.  When we arrived, she was already sitting on the cushion and many women of her court (were) sitting on mats around her. While the chaplain was getting ready for the ceremony, I showed her an image of Our Lord, a small statue of the Child Jesus and a cross. Upon seeing them, she was moved and, with tears in her eyes, she asked to be baptized. She was administered the sacrament, together with the ladies of her court, and named Juana, after the mother of the Emperor..In all, about 800 people were baptized that day, men, women and children. The Queen asked me to give her the statue of the Holy Child to replace her idols, and I gave it to her.”

             Of course, soon after, Magellan himself was killed on the Mactan beach. And when the Spaniards left, the Cebuanos, who had been made Christian in haste, gradually reverted to their old ways. Tradition has it that an image of the Virgin with the Child in her arms was also presented to the Queen as gift, and according to at least one version the Child was offered to Humabon, while the Virgin, more suitably perhaps, was bestowed upon the Queen. No variation in the story affects the origin of the image of the Holy Child and the cause of its presence in Cebu at Legazpi’s arrival. But there is left an intriguing aspect that no speculation will ever clarify. The image of the Virgin was later found at the bottom of a well, evidently discarded in fear or disesteem, whereas the image of the Child, whether kept in a house of distinction or in a hut of low station (for the stories do not agree on this point), was treated through the years with obvious solitude.

Whatever the reasons, the Santo Niño was there to preside over the beginnings of the Christianization of the country, and since, the image and the people’s devotion to it have been characteristic of our spirituality, even as they have consistently complemented the sacramental and liturgical ecclesial life which are essential elements of our Christianity.

The Shrine

             The original structure, the first church built in the country became known to Spaniard and native alike as “Santo Niño”, signifying both the building and the image. Most of Legazpi’s men soon moved to Panay and on to Manila, and through the centuries of the Spanish presence in the Philippines only a handful Spaniards, and indeed only a few Augustinians, were to reside in Cebu; but  the devotion to the Santo Niño was kept vigorous and flourishing in the city and the island, even as it also spread apace wherever the Augustinians went, from the Visayas to the northern reaches of Luzon, to the point that there is hardly a town in any province or island of the country where the Santo Niño is not venerated.

Still, Cebu, whose original name as a Spanish settlement as “City of the Most Holy Name of Jesus’, continues to be the center of the devotion, and it is there where it is shown in its most splendid and endearing manifestations. The first church of bamboo and nipa fell prey to fire, and so did others, more solid ones, that were built in succession. The present church and monastery were started in 1730, and the Santo Niño enthroned in his shrine on January 16, 1740.

The church is colonial in style, with some elements of the Baroque. The monastery is classical of lines, with an interior patio whose arcades open to the church on one side and to the lower floor of the monastery on the other. Nothing is grandiose in the entire structure, but some of the elements are of high artistic quality, particularly the retable of the main altar and the carvings of the choir loft and of main stairway of the monastery, and the whole is open, inviting, and conducive to devotion. Great damage was caused to both church and monastery at the close of World War II. One of the bombs hit so directly that all feared for the safety of the image; but to the amazed of all, it was found hanging by its cape from one of the candles decorating the niche. Fr. Leandro Moran, OSA, rescued the image and with tender care took it through the burning city to the church of the Redemptorists. After the most elementary repairs were done, the Santo Niño returned home on April 20, 1945.

The celebration of the fourth centennial of the Christianization of the Philippines in 1965 centered, most naturally, around the Santo Niño. Church and monastery were fittingly renovated, and because of its historical, religious and national import, the shrine was given the title Basilica. In the name of Pope Paul VI, the Legate crowned canonically the image at an imposing ceremony witnessed by an immense, silent, adoring crowd gathered from every part of the country; and the following year, for the first time in history, the Santo Niño left the city of Cebu to preside over the closing rites of the centennial in Manila, again attended by a faithful people led by the President of the Republic.

Finally, in November 1976, and in order to allow the devotees to approach the image without interfering with the liturgy of the Basilica proper, the Santo Niño was placed in a separate marble chapel, appointed for easy and orderly access.

The Devotion

             It has been assumed of late in certain quarters, especially after Vatican Council II, that devotional practices, as distinguished from the Mass, the sacraments, and the strictly ecclesial liturgy, should be discouraged. It was assumed, long before Vatican II, by certain people, no doubt dedicated and well-minded, that religion in the Philippines had early acquired and long preserved a sentimental, ritual ridden nature whose super session was overdue. The premise and the contention underlying both assumptions are that religion, even as practiced by ordinary people, should be based on and limited to essential theology.

The results of the attempts at radical change made in the Philippines soon made the reformers realize their mistake. The present-day confused, confusing and confounding directions some theologians would have the Church take, the defections at all levels, including the priestly and religious ranks, and the puzzlement among non-Catholic which has slowed down considerably the momentum in conversions should make all pause and reconsider the validity of those compensation, of new forms of religious emotionalism which smack of fundamentalist revivals. No doubt, Pope John Paul II, as experienced in modernity as he is anchored in tradition, knows well what he is doing when he keeps speaking opportunely and, apparently, inopportunely, of the importance of the devotion to Our Blessed Mother…

Certainly, a devotion to a Saint, for instance, which becomes obsessive and drives someone to enter a church and kneel before a statue while ignoring completely the Blessed Sacrament, is radically wrong. Certainly, too, a devotion can lead to fanaticism, to unnatural practices, or to mere superstition. A devotion, too, can serve as an excuse for pomp and vanity, or even as a toll for politics. But the abuse of something good cannot be construed as valid reason to get rid of the good itself.

A devotion, justified in itself, must be practiced with informed mind and faith, with sincere and honest commitment, and with a sense of proportion. This means is not only how a devotion should be practiced but also, understanding what she practiced. We are minds and souls, but also something more: we are bodies and hearts and emotions and senses, as subject to physical pain as capable of aesthetic joy. We are expected, and required, to worship God and to perceived His visitation with our whole nature, just as the world is God’s handicraft but also the quarry from which we get the stuff for our symbols for art as well as for worship. It would be difficult for a man perceptive not to exult as the spark begins to light the darkness of Easter eve; it would be strange for anyone not to be drawn towards the crib of Christmas.

Also, just as centuries ago men were talking about the “Great Chain of Being”, extending from God to nothingness through a gradated, ascending, and descending ladder of being in between, so there is a spiritual scale between the infinity of God and the smallness of man, with our Lord Jesus Christ, the High Pontiff or Bridge-Maker, the God Who became Man, spanning the abyss between God and man. We must never forget the Divinity of Christ, but, logically, we found much closer to His Humanity, and this justifies the appeal, or indeed the preference, we may show for certain aspects of His Humanity when we want to approach Him. Logically, too, and by extension, the Blessed Mother and, to a lesser degree, the Saints may appeal to us not only as models but also as intermediaries in the expression of our devotion and our needs. Once the premises of our faith are understood, all else follows and evolves most naturally and legitimately.

The devotion to the Santo Niño, if for the moment we let pass certain flaws that may taint it somewhat, is much easier to understand and to practice than most others, and our people have shown a remarkable insight in responding so consistently to it. Touchingly human as it undoubtedly is, and very much in consonance with the deep sense of family that characterizes our life, the response is also eminently theological and firmly rooted in the Gospel. We go to the Child to find the Redeemer and the Lord, and we go to Him because before God all human greatness is reduced to smallness and it was to the children that the Lord made the promise acceptance. And unaware perhaps of the words of poets, we know well that the child is father to the man and that it is children that make the family.

The whole range of the meaning and purpose of the incarnation of our Lord is involved in the devotion to the Holy Child; the whole extent of our sense of life and of family is engaged in our predilection for the Santo Niño. We worship the Infancy of the Lord not only because He came to the world as an infant, but also because He came to us as a people as a child. This is the manner He chose and this is the manner in which we have accepted and continue to accept Him. It is in name of Jesus alone that grace and salvation can be granted to mankind. By calling the Lord Santo Niño, we are expressing our will not only to accept salvation in His name but also to do so not merely out of a sense of duty but out of the affection of our heart. It was the Man of Sorrows that once, on His way to Calvary, was called in derision King; it is the smiling Child in Whom we recognize as King that He truly is and will forever be and Whom we wish enthroned, King of faith, of time and of eternity, in our lives and in our homes.

We know the Santo Niño to be the Son of the Father, the God made man for the redemption of the world, the God-Man hidden in the Blessed Sacrament, the Institutor of the Sacraments and the Guarantor of the grace they confer on us for our salvation, and the Judge Who will in the end declare each one of us worthy or unworthy. We know that the image we venerate in our churches and our homes is not He, but only a symbol, a token, a reminder of the One we love and worship. And we do not for a moment forget any of these truths. But still we go before the image, day after day, at home or in church, individually or with our family or with the larger family of the faithful, knowing what  the image does for us, grateful that He gave it to us as proof, as assurance of His own predilection.

We know further what the image and our devotion can do for us at the levels in various other ways, regarding the loyalties, the decency, the honor and the commitments of a man, of a woman, of a child, of a growing adolescent, the unity of a family… when one and all must face every day, must say good night before retiring, in the presence of Santo Niño enthroned in the place of honor of a home. And we know that a society is the addition of many homes, of all human beings that go out every day from each of those homes in which the true nature of everyone of us is most deeply shaped.

The worship of Our Lord is universal. The devotion to the Santo Niño is a Filipino modality, national in its spirits and characteristics. To live this devotion in all its richness and efficacy and to have it spread through the entire country, to every church, to every family, to every Filipino, is the purpose and main reason of the Cofradia.