The Santo Niño icon of Cebu is historically recognized as the oldest religious relic in the Philippines. Itsorigin is traced from the celebrated voyage of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 which accidentally “discovered” and claimed the islands for the Spanish Monarchy. The historic arrival was purely uncalculated for the fleet did not intend to sail directly to the Philippines. The land of the spices, particularly the highly-contested Moluccas, was the expedition’s targetdestination. The armada reached the islands after it was driven away by strong winds from the original routewhich eventually brought them to the island of Cebu. The preliminary encounters that followed forged conditional alliancesand the accompanying ceremonials took place including the introduction of the Christian faith. Initial attempt to evangelize the indigenous people of Cebu was accomplished with the hasty acceptance of the Christian faith by King Humabon and his subjects numbering around 800. The Santo Niño image was given to Queen Juana upon her ardent wish to have it in place of her local deities. The baptized indigenous people did not flourish in their practice of faith mainly due to the untimely demise of Magellan (including the chaplain Fr. Pedro Valderrama) and the eventual return of the surviving contingent to Spain. Also attributable to the absence of deeper instruction, the baptismal rite was misconstrued by the locals as a customary ritual of friendship rather than a spiritual initiation. After the interruption of forty-four (44) years, the Legazpi-Urdaneta Expedition arrived in Cebu. On April 28, 1565, the dramatic yet providential discovery (pagkakaplag) of the same wooden image in a partially scorched hut started the distinctive Christian heritage of the Philippines. The Augustinians who accompanied the journey commenced the systematic evangelization and Christianization of the islands. The subsequent foundation of the Church and Convent of the Augustinians rose on the actual site where the statuette was found. It became the central house of the Augustinians, the mother church in the Philippine Islands. The establishment of organic settlements and mission areas followed instantaneously and the pioneering evangelization gradually prospered in geographical reach and ecclesial organization despite the scarcity of missionaries. Additional religious orders were commissioned to the Philippines in successive intervals: Franciscans (1578), Jesuits (1581), Dominicans (1587), and Augustinian Recollects (1606). Their ground-breaking missionary endeavours contributed to the Philippine identity as a predominantly Christian nation.
The first Church and Convent dedicated to Santo Niño developed into a principalhouse of the Augustinian friars mainly in the spiritual and missionary formation, and the promotion of the devotion to the Holy Child – theadored patron, protector and inspiration. As a consequence, the Santo Niño Church grew in popularity throughout the islands both in magnificence and significance as the cradle of Philippine Christianity, and the perpetual sanctuary of the Santo Niño of Cebu. In recognition of the historical, religious and cultural importance of the Santo Niño Church and the sacred relic it keeps, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) petitioned Pope Paul VI in 1964 to confer on the Santo Niño Church the title “Basilica Minore” in time for the Fourth Centennial of the Christianization of the Philippines in 1965.The Santo Niño icon was also canonically crowned by the Papal LegateIldebrando Cardinal Antoniutti – a solemn gesture of singular honor reserved to the beloved Santo Niño. In its entirety, the Fourth Centennial Celebration overwhelmingly succeeded in engaging the entire nation, thus renewing “The Philippines for Christ” in faith, commitment and enthusiasm to live out the Gospel message.