The Shrine and Ecumenism


“And when the angels said, ‘O Mary!  
Indeed God has chosen you, and purified you,
and has chosen you above  all other women of the worlds. 
O Mary! Be devoutly obedient to your Lord
and prostrate and bow with those bow.’”  
– Qur’an 3:42-43

Outside the shrine, there are many Muslim vendors selling all sorts of wares—clothes, electronics, housewares, even Catholic religious articles like rosaries, statutes, novena booklets and other religious materials. Most of these Muslim traders came from the provinces in Mindanao, the island in the south of the Philippines that has the largest Muslim population in the country. The Muslim traders began to arrive in the 1990s. In due course, some Muslim settlers invested in established stalls (puwesto) and matched medium-and-large-scale business enterprises owned by other merchants in the area. A considerable number, however, remained as street vendors due to lack of sufficient capital.[1]

After the trade came the mosques. Four mosques were constructed within 500 meters from the shrine. The earliest mosque is the Masjid Abdullah, built in 1978; the next to be built is Masjid Rajah Sulayman in 1995. Masjid Al-Nur in Brgy. 79 of Pasay City came next in 1998, while Masjid Al-Wasat, located a few meters away from Baclaran Barangay Hall at the shrine’s northern part, was completed in 2009.[2] At present, only three mosques exist. The Masjid Rajah Sulayman which sat on a reclaimed land on Roxas Boulevard just south of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, overlooking Manila Bay was demolished by the government in 2013. The government’s reason for the demolition was the tenants’ lack of legal ownership of the site and an ordinance to widen city streets and prevent pickpocketing and violence in the area.

The shrine has maintained a relationship of peaceful co-existence with the Muslim community in Baclaran in the past. Besides small attempts at reaching out, there was no substantial effort towards dialogue between the shrine and the Muslim community. I do not know why no substantial dialogue between the Baclaran shrine community and Muslim community occurred. Perhaps, both sides did not know where and how to begin.

Nevertheless, this will be a big challenge for both parties in the future. Because of the large number of Muslim community, the Baclaran shrine has the potential to become a center for Christian-Muslim dialogue. In this endeavor, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, can play a vital part in the dialogue with the Muslims.  Our Mother of Perpetual Help can be a vital part because Mary is also greatly revered by the Muslims. I shall talk more about this later.

An interesting phenomenon in some countries in Asia where there are shrine for Our Mother of Perpetual Help is non-Christians praying before the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. This is true in Singapore, India (Bombay), and the Philippines. In the Novena church[3] in Singapore, for example, Singaporean Redemptorist Fr. Gerard Louis reports that 20 to 25% of those who attend the Novena are non-Catholics, people of other faiths—Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. Among all Catholic churches in Singapore, they only go to the Novena church. They only go for the novena not for the mass and other church sacraments and services.[4]  Some new Catholics, however, have come to faith and Baptism through the Novena Devotions.

Here in Baclaran, there is no exact figure or percentage of how many non-Catholics pray the novena. From time to time, though, the phenomenon has received some admiration from other Christian denomination. For example, Jullian Robin Sibi said that Baclaran is one of those spots where you have to go to even though you are not Catholic.[5] Andy Dierickx, who identifies himself as a Protestant Christian, sincerely admires the devotees’ dedication despite the fact that he does not approve of every practice they do:

Let me preface my comment by saying as a ‘protestant Christian’ (for want of a better label) there are many things I don’t understand about the Roman Catholic church. Novenas, rosaries, praying to statuary and knee-walking are just some of the things I don’t comprehend. Lately I have been a bit outspoken on the subject and have offended loved ones in the process. On reflection I pray and ask forgiveness for that. I may never understand the rituals and practices, but I cannot question the devotion of the devotees of the Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church. They sit and sweat and kneel and sweat when they could be in SM or home in front of the aircon! If some of my fellow Christians could have half of that fervor it would be amazing. While I could never subscribe to the Catholic precepts and ideology I pay respect to the beautiful folk who gather at Baclaran each Wednesday. Next time I am in town I might just drop in and sweat with you.[6]

Ben Hernandez, a non-Christian, left a comment on the Baclaran FB page in July 2, 2017: “I am not a Christian but, as l have said in my wall post, Baclaran Church truly reflects our Filipino culture, values and heritage.”[7]

The latest novena does not have any prayer intention on ecumenism. Not surprisingly, the 1948 novena had a Prayer for the Conversion of Non-Catholics as one of it’s recommended private prayers. This reflects the prevalent antagonism towards non-Catholics during the time before Vatican II. This was removed in the 1973 novena. This reflects a changing attitude and the increasing desire for ecumenism towards non-Catholics.

Ecumenism is an important ministry of shrines as affirmed by the pontifical document, The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God. The document states,

“The intense experience of the Church’s unity which shrines provide can help pilgrims to discern and welcome the promptings of the Spirit that lead them in a special way to pray and work for the unity of all Christians … Shrines can be places where ecumenical commitment is strongly promoted, since there the change of heart and holiness of life that are “the soul of the whole ecumenical movement” is fostered and the grace of unity given by the Lord is experienced.[8]

The Pontifical Council reaffirmed this in the Third Asian Congress on Pilgrimages and Shrines in Nagasaki, Japan in 2007:

Pilgrimages and Shrines are privileged opportunities and places of peace and reconciliation, even not in fullness of communion, where not only the Catholic faithful gather, but also believers of other religions too. Using Pope Benedict XVI’s recent words, “they become meeting spaces for unity while respecting legitimate diversity”[9]

Interreligious Milieu

Ecumenism has affected families of devotees. Some families of devotees have members with different religions like Karen who wrote in September 23, 2014,

I am married now and thankful that 35 years of my life I bring my husband even though we do not have same religion he tend to embrace and respect what I believe. I know you have great plans for me and my husband. I am grateful and thankful.

According to Philippine Statistics Authority, 92% of the population of the country is Christian.  The Roman Catholic Church is the predominant Christian denomination with 81% of the total population, while about 11% belong to Protestant Christian and independent Catholic denominations, such as Iglesia Filipina Independiente, Seventh-day Adventist Church, United Church of Christ in the Philippines and Evangelicals.[10] According to national religious surveys, about 5.6% of the population of the Philippines is Muslim, making Islam the second largest religion in the country. Philippine traditional religions are still practiced by an estimated 2% of the population, made up of many aboriginal and tribal groups.[11]

Despite that the Philippines is 80% Catholics, the ordinary devotee is exposed to other religious culture and expression of the faith. OFW’s working abroad are exposed to different beliefs and religious life style especially when they work in non-Christian countries. The exposure to other religions brings changes to their thinking and living of their devotion, not to mention, being converted to other religion. They bring this renewed religious thinking when they go back home to the Philippines.

We live at at time where there is a growing movement of dialogue among religions and faiths.  The increasing calls and efforts for interreligious dialogue continue to break down walls of prejudice and intolerance. Fiore describes today’s global world as a world where one in seven people lives outside his/her place of origin; a world where cultures meet, spiritualities compete, and we are left wondering what to do with the faith we have received as an inheritance.[12] The world is heading towards greater openness beyond the religion we have grown into. There is no turning back, as David Tracy contended, “[T]here can be no return to a pre-ecumenical, pre-pluralistic, ahistorical theology.”[13]

The interreligious milieu poses several challenges to the living of one’s religion. First, each one is challenged to have a clearer understanding and deeper living of one’s religion.  As people are exposed to other religions they learn to see more the distinctiveness of their own religion and this help to clarify their religious identity. Alternatively, each one is challenged to learn from the other.  Everyone is challenged to have a wider and deeper understanding of God that goes beyond one’s own religion.  Finally, it provides an opportunity for mutual enrichment about God as each religion reveals a special facet of the truth about God.[14]  In this interreligious milieu, dialogue becomes a necessary attitude, a way of life. It challenges each one to learn the art of listening despite actual differences.

These developments affirm the church’s conviction in recent years towards continuous interreligious dialogue.  Many church documents, especially after Vatican II, have affirmed that the seeds of the Gospel go beyond the Catholic Church. For example, Lumen Gentium says that salvation is possible for all people of goodwill whether they have explicit faith in God or not.[15]  Nostra Aetate declares that other than Christianity, there is a ray of truth that enlightens all men and women.[16]  And Gaudium et Spes affirms that the Holy Spirit in a way known only to God offers every person the possibility of being associated with the paschal mystery.[17]

Despite the climate of pluralism, multiculturalism, and ecumenism there is continuous religious conflicts and the rise of religious intolerance and fundamentalism in the world today. There are those who advocate for a return to exclusion, religious discrimination, religious fundamentalism and, religious extremism. In the Philippines, there is still a perceived mutual prejudice between Muslims, Lumads, and Christians. Many suffer from the continuous war between Muslims and Christians in the south.

Contemplatio: Looking through the Icon

There is a profound basis for ecumenism both in the icon and the life of Mary. Contemplating the icon throughout these years, the icon has instilled the seeds of ecumenism amongst the devotees.

Even as the icon is foreign, a Byzantine Icon which proclaims an Eastern theology, devotees came to love the Icon. Through the icon, devotees became exposed to the influence of a foreign theology–Eastern theology.

Icona dopo il restauro senza corone

The icon is a product of ecumenism. In the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help East and West tradition and elements meet to deliver a profound meaning and spirituality. Italian Redemptorist Fr. Serafino Fiore expounds,

East and West met in admirable harmony, and our Icon shows the vestiges. If in this one the Eastern tradition speaks through symbols and themes that are proper to it, including the stylized face of Mary and the thread-like design of the hands, then the West reveals the influence of Italian art in the humanized figure of the child and in a new combination of colors.[18]

Missio: Walking with Mary

Whatever religion one may belong and adhere to, Mary presents a refreshing model in the living out of one’s faith and religion. Mary is the archetype to how one ought to live religiously. Major religions, in particular, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, have found in Mary an inspiration and model to living out one’s religion. Mary as Theotokos, virgin, mother/spouse, best represents humanity’s allowing the fullness of God’s grace into human life.

In this light, Mary is key to ecumenism. Professor Macquarrie contends that in Mary, Christian denominations may find resources for unity and reconciliation, rather than conflict. Macquarrie asserts that the theology of Mary will “throw new light on the truths from which it had been derived and will thereby strengthen the coherence and unity of the many elements which together constitute the Christian faith”.[19] Archbishop Francesco Gioia contends that because of her special place in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Mary is regarded as a meeting point in interreligious dialogue. Mary serves as an opening for dialogue between religions. Charles Dickson,  Lutheran parish pastor and author of two books on Mary, beautifully summarizes Mary’s special role to ecumenism,

A Muslim student in Rome asks to visit Santa Maria Maggiore Church and then explains the Muslim devotion to Mary. A Greek tour guide takes tourists through Eastern Orthodox churches resplendent with beautiful icons of Mary. And a Presbyterian minister writes a book on the Rosary and, as a result, incorporates it into his daily devotions. Perhaps it is no accident that in our world of harsh conflict and human insensitivity, people of many faiths should find a common meeting place in devotion to the tender Mother of Jesus. Perhaps she will bring her warring children together and teach them how to live as a family of peace. In the Blessed Virgin we find elements of all the world’s monotheistic religions.

Let us examine how Mary is an instrument of unity and reconciliation between different denominations within Christianity and between Christian and Muslims.

East and West

Both Eastern and Western church have a deeply rooted devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.  Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Churches both share a deep love for Our Lady. John Paul II underlined “how profoundly the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the ancient Churches of the East feel united by love and praise of the Theotokos[20] Dimitrios I, the Ecumenical Patriarch, has noted that “our two sister Churches have maintained throughout the centuries unextinguished the flame of devotion to the most venerated person of the all-holy Mother of God’, [Dimitrios I, Homily given on December 7, 1987 during the celebration of Vespers at St. Mary Major(Rome): L’Osservatore Romano(Eng. Ed. Dec. 21-28, 1987), p. 6.], and he went on to say that “the subject of Mariology should occupy a central position in the theological dialogue between our Churches … for the full establishment of our ecclesial communion.” [ibid., 6]

architecture christianity church crosses
Photo by Pixabay on

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help can serve as a bridge between the East and West church. Fiore cites the potential of the icon for dialogue with the Eastern church:

With our mutual love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, she can be an instrument of unity among our faiths. In this sense our Icon also has a role: to make us rediscover the Christian life breathing with two lungs.[21]

Catholics – Anglicans

The Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) was created in 1969 which seeks to make ecumenical progress between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. In 28 January 2004 – 3 February 2004 in Seattle, Washington, the ARCIC produced an agreed statement on Mary,”Marian Issues and Final Document”; “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.” The ARCIC offers this Agreed Statement in the hope that it expresses our common faith about the one who, of all believers, is closest to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.[22] The statement further declares the communion of the two churches regarding Mary:

Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, stands before us as an exemplar of faithful obedience, and her “Be it to me according to your word” is the grace-filled response each of us is called to make to God, both personally and communally, as the Church, the body of Christ. It is as figure of the Church, her arms uplifted in prayer and praise, her hands open in receptivity and availability to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that we are one with Mary as she magnifies the Lord. “Surely,” Mary declares in her song recorded in the Gospel of Luke, “from this day all generations will call me blessed.”.[23]

We recognize in the event of the Incarnation God’s gracious ‘Yes’ to humanity as a whole… Mary’s fiat can be seen as the supreme instance of a believer’s ‘Amen’ in response to the ‘Yes’ of God.[23]

Catholics – Protestants

Up to the early 20th century, Protestants look to the Marian devotion and tradition of the Catholic church with great suspicion. This is epitomized in the term “Mariolatry” which is a Protestant pejorative label for perceived excessive Catholic devotion to Mary. The Swiss Reformed theologian who is often regarded as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, has said that Marian theology is the main heresy of Catholicism: “Mariology is an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Excrescences must be excised.”[24]

In the second half of the 20th century, however, there was an emerging interest among Protestants in Mary.  Byassee Many Protestants have taken a new look at Mary.  Protestants heightened interest in Mary … suggest she could be an ecumenical bridge — or at least that the Protestant aversion to Marian devotion is eroding.[25]  Byassee contends that Protestants rejecting Mary have often thrown out the baby with the bathwater.[26]  The internationally renowned American evangelist and prominent evangelical Christian figure in the 20th century, Billy Graham admits that evangelicals did not give Mary her proper due. Reformed theologian Willie Jennings says, “Salvation begins with Mary’s yes.”[27] But the Lateran theologian Asmussen still expressed some reservation: “We say yes to Mary the highly praised mother of God, and no to Marianism.”[28]

Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has focused on the ecclesial import of Mary, and advocated a Protestant recovery of the tradition of Marian prayer.[29] Byassee recommended that to ask Mary for prayers is not un-Protestant. Another Lutheran theologian, David Yeago, invoked the long tradition of “Marian consciousness” in the church, and called upon Protestants to recognize and reclaim, on the basis of Scripture, the truth that every Christian’s relationship to Jesus Christ contains a relationship to Mary.[30] Even further, he argued that Scripture supports the view that “Mary is present to the church and to the believer both as the proto-type and model of the church and the believer, and also as an active agent of the formation of the church and the believer”.[31]

Catholics – Islam

Vatican II ushered a new attitude towards Islam: “Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with esteem.”[32] Nostra Aetate listed several reasons why the Church should respect Islam; it shows parallels between Islamic belief and Christian faith. Among these many common elements, Mary is clearly mentioned: “They also honor Mary, His [Jesus’] virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion.”[33]

Love for the Virgin Mary runs deep in Islam. In the Qur’an, Mary’s name (Maryam) appears explicitly thirty-four times; in twenty-four of these references, she is identified as the mother of Jesus (Isa). Mary is mentioned more often by name in the Muslim scripture than in the Christian New Testament. One chapter of the Qur’an (Sura 19) is in fact entitled “Mary” and it narrates the events of the annunciation of Jesus’ birth: Mary is chosen by God and given divine favors; she is immaculately consecrated to God from her mother’s womb; an angel appears to her and announces the miraculous virgin birth of a child; Mary accepts, conceives Isa and gives birth to him.[34] The very story of the birth of Mary, which the feast day commemorates, is found in the Quran: (3:35-36).

In the international pilgrimage shrine of Our Lady of Fátima, one aspect that often goes unnoticed is the subtle connection with Islam. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to the three shepherd children near the city of Fátima, Portugal, a place named after both a Muslim princess and the daughter of Mohammed.[35] As Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as “Our Lady of Fátima” as a pledge and a sign of hope to the Moslem people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her Divine Son, too.” Thus, not surprisingly, the shrine at Fátima, Portugal, has also attracted Muslims in great numbers. They go to see the place where the Virgin Mary appeared in a city named after one of their most highly revered women. [36]

Thus, Mary can serve as a bridge between Islam and Christianity: It is certainly true that in her very person there is a meeting point, or at least a stepping stone, between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, as the Qur’an itself says: “To those who believe, God has set an example (“mathalan”) … in Mary, who preserved her chastity …, who put her trust in the words of her Lord and his scriptures and was one of the truly devout” (“Prohibition” LXVI:12).[37]

Call to action

Mary and the icon has enriched devotion through understanding and appreciation of ecumenism. Mary and the icon can become starting point for dialogue with other religions and faith that can nurture and develop our devotion. Our devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help can become more productive and meaningful if we learn from other faiths and Christian denomination through Mary and the icon.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help can be a bridge between communities. Marian devotion can be an avenue for inter-faith dialogue with peoples of other faith traditions. The icon and Mary encourages interreligious dialogue. Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help does not harbor biases against people of other faiths or people with different political convictions. The devotion can be an instrument of peace, mutual cooperation among peoples of different faiths towards common fight against poverty and violence.

Perhaps, Mary and the Icon can be the starting of a dialogue between the Muslim community and the shrine in Baclaran in the future.

Joey Echano

(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)


[1] Manuel Victor Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity: A Sociological Assessment of Popular Religion in the Philippines, 150.

[2] Ustad Samanuddin, personal communication, 2011: Sapitula, 147.

[3] The official name of church is St. Alphonsus but everybody calls it the Novena Church.

[4] Gerard Louis, “Our Mother of Perpetual Help Devotion in a Non-Christian Context: Possibilities for Interfaith Dialogue,” in a Talk Given to the 150th Jubilee International Congress, Baclaran, April 24-27, 2017.

[5] Jullian Robin Sibi accessed at

[6] Andy Dierickx,


[8] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God, Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, #43 – 44.

[9] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Third Asian Congress on Pilgrimages and Shrines (Nagasaki, Japan, October 15-17, 2007)

[10] Philippines in Figures : 2014, Philippine Statistics Authority.

[11] Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project: Philippines. Pew Research Center. 2010.

[12] Fiore, “The spiritual, pastoral and missionary message of the Icon,”22.

[13] Tracy, “Defending the Public Character of Theology.”

[14] Nostra Aetate, 2.

[15] Lumen Gentium, 16.

[16] Nostra Aetate, 2.

[17] Gaudium et Spes, 22.

[18] Serafino Fiore, The spiritual, pastoral and missionary message of the Icon of the Lady of Perpetual Help

Presentation to the Campo Grande Conference in Brazil, May 2014, 2.

[19] Macquarrie, Mary for All Christians, 59.

[20] Redemptoris Mater, 31.

[21] Fiore, “The spiritual, pastoral and missionary message of the Icon,”22.

[22] Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, The Seattle Statement, #1.

[23] Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, #5.

[24] Karl Barth (1 January 2004). Church Dogmatics: The doctrine of the word of God (2 pts.). Continuum. pp. 139

[25] Byassee, “Protestants and Marian Devotion,” 1.

[26] Byassee, “Protestants and Marian Devotion,” 5.

[27] Byassee, “Protestants and Marian Devotion,” 6.

[28] Catharina Halkes, “Mary in My Life,” Mary: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Edward Schillebeeckx and Catharina Halkes (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 52.

[29] Jenson, Robert. “A Space for God.” In Mary, Mother of God. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, 49-57, 56.

[30] Yeago, David S. “The Presence of Mary in the Mystery of the Church.” In Mary, Mother of

God. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, 58-79, 63.

[31] Yeago, “The Presence of Mary in the Mystery of the Church,” 59.

[32] Nostra Aetate, #3

[33] Nostra Aetate, #3

[34] R.J. McCarthy, “Mary in Islam,” Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, ed. Alberic Stacpoole (Slough, England: St. Paul Publications, 1982), 208-211.

[35] Philip Kosloski, The surprising connection between Our Lady of Fatima and Islam, Aleteia, May 7, 2017.

[36] Philip Kosloski, The surprising connection between Our Lady of Fatima and Islam, Aleteia, May 7, 2017.

[37] William Keeler, How Mary Holds Christians and Muslims in Conversation, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops USCCB, 3.