'FIRST BAPTISM'. Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines Archbishop Charles John Brown presents an image of the Sto. Niño to a boy who was one of the seven children baptized during the solemn Pontifical Mass beside the Magellan's Cross at the Plaza Sugbu in Cebu City, on Wednesday (April 14, 2021). The activity was part of the celebration for the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines. (PNA photo by John Rey Saavedra)

CEBU CITY – The Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines, Archbishop Charles John Brown administered Wednesday the sacrament of baptism to seven children to depict the same event on April 14, 1521 when the ruler of Cebu and his wife accepted Christianity.

The ritual during the solemn pontifical Mass beside the historic Magellan’s Cross at the Plaza Sugbu was also attended by Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Cardinal Quevedo, other bishops, and a hundred priests.

The seven children whom Brown welcomed to the Roman Catholic Church: were David Villagracia, John Michael Dragon, Milby Illocendo, April Suan, Billy Connie Pal, French Cedric Sison and Jolito Abaquita Jr.

Brown also handed over to the kids an image of the Sto. Niño and their baptismal certificate.

In his homily, he said the rites given to the children "will give a rebirth, in the spirit”. “We will give them the light of Christ," Brown said.

He shared his reflection on what happened in Cebu 500 years ago when Christianity was a faith that began in Asia before it spread throughout the world into large parts of Asia, North Africa, and Europe.

"So, we have this paradox of the arrival of Christian faith in the Philippines -- that the faith, which itself, was born in Asia, was then brought here first by means of European explorers and colonizers who were accompanied by missionaries and that was a great gift -- the gift of the Catholic faith," the representative of Pope Francis said.

The Mass was also attended by a few government officials led by Presidential Assistant for the Visayas Michael Lloyd Dino, who represented President Rodrigo Duterte in the event, Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia, Cebu City Mayor Edardo Labella, Lapu-Lapu City Mayor Junard Chan, among others, as well as papal awardees and a few religious nuns.

Palma expressed gratitude to the faithful for attending the historic event, while observing health and safety protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19).

Basilica now a national treasure

The Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño de Cebu and the image of the Sto. Niño are now national cultural treasures.

“As contribution to this commemoration, the cultural agencies of our country have decided to declare the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño de Cebu as a national cultural treasure, one of the highest distinctions the state can give to a particular build heritage,” said Rene Escalante, chairman of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.

Escalante is also the executive director of the National Quincentennial Committee (NQC) which served as the clearinghouse of all government efforts for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Filipinos' first contact with the Spanish in 1521 from a Filipino-centric point of view.

Republic Act 10066, the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009 defines a national cultural treasure as unique cultural property which possesses “outstanding historical, cultural, artistic and/or scientific value which is highly significant and important to the country and nation”.

The law entitles the property to receive priority government funding for protection, conservation, and restoration; incentive for private support of conservation and restoration; an official heritage marker; and priority protection by the government in times of armed conflict, natural disasters, and other exceptional events.

The Sto. Niño minor basilica was declared a national historic landmark in 1973.

A historical marker was installed at the basilica complex, the fourth mounted in the 456-year old church.

The first marker was fixed in 1941 when the basilica was declared a national monument.

Another marker at the Magellan’s Cross was also installed in 1941, and another one for the Order of St. Augustine, three years ago.

“The presence of a historical marker in the complex adds value to this historic place. Aside from being considered a holy ground as the home of the most venerated image of Child Jesus of Cebu, the Basilica is regarded as an important cultural property that the national government should preserve, protect and promote,” Escalante said.

Fr. Andres Rivera Jr., prior provincial of the Augustinian friars in Cebu, expressed his gratitude to the national government’s commitment to afford protection for the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño and the holy image.

Rivera said the church stands not only as a building with beautiful designs “but a place where a tradition and culture has taken place”.

The basilica was founded in 1565 by the Augustinian friars, Fray Andres de Urdaneta and Fray Diego de Herrera.

Recognized as the oldest Roman Catholic church in the Philippines, the basilica is built on the same spot where the image of the Sto. Niño de Cebu was found during the expedition of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi. It was the same image presented by Ferdinand Magellan to Rajah Humabon’s wife upon the royal couple’s baptism on April 14, 1521. (PNA)