The Icon of the Sto. Nino de Cebu in the Philippines: For Faith or Luck?

Yesterday, the third Sunday of January, is an Ordinary Sunday for the rest of the Roman Catholic world.  But for us in the Philippines, it is the  Feast of Sto. Nino de Cebu—a dispensation of the Holy See (A short history of the feast is here).  Thus, in the last Sunday’s liturgy we hear the following passage from the Isaiah:

At the first time the land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephtali was lightly touched: and at the last the way of the sea beyond the Jordan of the Galilee of the Gentiles was heavily loaded. The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen. Thou hast multiplied the nation, and hast not increased the joy. They shall rejoice before thee, as they that rejoice in the harvest, as conquerors rejoice after taking a prey, when they divide the spoils. For the yoke of their burden, and the rod of their shoulder, and the sceptre of their oppressor thou best overcome, as in the day of Median.  For every violent taking of spoils, with tumult, and garment mingled with blood, shall be burnt, and be fuel for the fire.

For a CHILD IS BORN to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace. His empire shall be multiplied, and there shall be no end of peace: he shall sit upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom; to establish it and strengthen it with judgment and with justice, from henceforth and for ever: the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9:1-7)

This passage from Isaiah is the basis for the icon of the Sto. Nino de Cebu (housed in the Basilica run by the Augustinians).  The usual icon is the Infant Child holding a globe on his left and and a sceptre on his right as he blesses the people.  On the Infant’s head is a bulging crown with a cross (similar to the chess notation for a queen).  The Infant’s cape is spread out and dotted with flowers.  The color of the cape is sometimes gold, but a more proper would be the traditional red (embroidered with gold), for it reflects best the verse “garment mingled with blood, shall be burnt, and be fuel for the fire.

In other icons, the Sto. Nino is dressed according to the trade of the owner.  If the owner is a farmer or fisherman, the Sto. Nino is dressed with camisa de chino (cotton long sleeves) with matching straw hat (usually termed as Sto. Nino de Palaboy or the Wandering Child).  If a the owner is a student, the Sto. Nino wears a crisp white polo shirt, brown shorts, socks, and shoes.  A possible biblical basis for this practice may be the word “Immanuel,” meaning “God is with us” even in our daily life (but I prefer the kingly icon).

The Sto. Nino is usually placed in business establishments to bring good luck.  But “luck” is a Chinese superstition.  Catholics should not believe in luck.   We Catholics should not fear the predictions of Chinese astrology based on the twelve animals and the five elements.  For as Paul said,

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Rom 8:38).

We should not put the icon of the Sto. Nino in our homes and offices as a talisman for good luck; rather we should put Sto. Nino as a sign of our faith in a good God.

Fr. Horacio de la Costa, S.J.: The Priests Who Brought Christianity to the Philippines Belonged to the Church of the Counter-Reformation

The lowland peoples of the Philippines were converted to Roman Catholic Christianity by priests and brothers of the missionary religious orders which had establishments in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  They were, in the order of their first arrival in the islands, the Augustinians (1565), the Franciscans (1578), the Jesuits (1581), the Dominicans (1587), and the Augustinian Recollects (1606).

Very few secular priests came to the Philippines during the period of Spanish rule.  Those that did serve mostly as cathedral clergy in Manila and Cebu.

In the beginning, the Philippine missonaries were almost all Spaniards born in Spain itself (peninsulares).  In the course o the Seventeenth Century they were joined by Spaniard[s] born in the colonies (criollos), andlater still by other Europeans, mostly from the Hapsburg dominions.  However, penisular Spaniards constituted the preponderant majority of the Philippine clergy until the very end of Spanish rule.

Thus, the priest who brought Christianity to the Philippines were men who belonged, spiritually, to the church of the Counter-Reformation, intellectually, to the Age of the Baroque.

They were men of the Counter-Reformation Church, the Church that was closing ranks against the novatores, the innovating Protestants of the northern European countries who were challenging the traditional beliefs of Catholics.  They were deeply concerned about preserving the ”purity of faith,” by which they meant scripture and tradition as interpreted by medieval scholastics, of whom Saint Thomas Aquinas was prince; the faith as most recently defined by the Council of Trent, and as authoritatively regulated and enforced by the Holy See and the Spanish Inquisition. This was the faith that they meant to preserve intact, and to transmit to those who did not yet have it.

This faith was not only the truth, but the whole truth regarding man’s condition and his ordination to God his Creator.  All men are to be persuaded to accept this truth in its totality.  If they cannot be persuaded, they they must be compelled—the ”compelle intrare” of the gospel—for otherwise they cannot be saved.  Extra ecclesiam nulla salus—there is no salvation outside the church.

This may serve to explain the extreme caution—one might almost say the intransigence—with which the Spanish missionaries who founded our Philippine Christinaity regarded any departure from the religous practices they were used to.  Nil innoventur nisi quod traditum est—let there be no innovations, except those handed down by tradition.  We may consider this an impracticable, even an inconsisten principle.  We must nevertheless try to understand, and to symphatize with it as a principle sincerely held.

The adaptation of Christianity to anon-European culture was not antecedently and entirely excluded.  But it was a very limited form of adaptation, whose object seemed to be simply to make Christian belief and practice more palatable to the people being evangelized.  There was no real attempt to learn from the alien culture; to seek elements in it which might possibly enrich Christian belief or make Christian worship more meaningful.  This was not possible to men of the Counter-Reformation.  How could it be?  Their reaction to the Protestant revolt was to defend the Roman Catholic tradition in its entirety; to preserve it intact and to transmit it intact, because it was the whole truth about man and God.  Any departure from it by a Christian was simply heresy, and whatever pagans believed in was simply error, the vain imaginings of people who ”sit in darkness and the shadow of death.”


Horacio de la Costa, “The priest in the Philippine life and society: an historical view,” in Church and Sacraments, ed. by Ma. Victoria B. Parco, (Department of Theology, Ateneo de Manila University), pp.  192-200.  The posted excerpt is pp. 192-193.  The original article is from Loyola Papers no. 12 (Manila: Ateneo, CBI, 1980), pp. 4-15.

About the Author:

Reverend Father Horacio de la Costa, S.J. (1916-1970) was the first Filipino Provincial General of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines, and a recognized authority in Philippine and Asian culture and history. (Wikipedia)

The Ateneo de Manila Website has his picture, early writings, and biography).

Gregor Mendel the Augustinian Abbot

We know Gregor Mendel as the Austrian scientist who cross-bred pea plants to determine the law of how genetic traits of the parents, such as  tall and short, are passed on to their offsprings.  But he is not only the Father of Heredity.  As a parish priest ordained in 1847, he was also the father of his parish.  And as an Augustinian monk elected abbot by his fellow monks at the age of 47, he was also the father of his monastery[1]:

The new abbot was a very popular man. He received a good living and used much of it to entertain friends. Festival days were marked by open house to which the entire village was invited. Christmas was celebrated in a memorable manner; food and drink were enjoyed by all. Mendel was known to be charitable although he avoided publicizing his gifts to troubled villagers.

In spite of his gentleness he ended his life in dispute with the government. The legislature had passed a bill in 1874 that called for the taxation of church property in order to increase the salaries of the parish priests.

Mendel agreed that the state needed the money for this purpose and offered to send a voluntary contribution. He regarded the law as repressive, however, and stubbornly refused to concede that the state had any right to tax the church. The government would not accept the voluntary contribution but reasserted its demands. The struggle went on without result until his death, but it embittered Mendel, causing him to turn on anyone who tried to reason that the laws must be obeyed.[2]


[1] Philip Cane, Giants of Science (Pyramid, New York, 1959), pp. 194-200. See p. 196-197.

[2] Ibid., p. 197.