by Monsignor David A. Sork, Contributing Writer
This year, the Philippine Islands are celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christianity.
On the Asian continent, it was only in the Philippines that Catholicism was firmly established, thanks to the Spanish brothers who landed with Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. He first set foot on the island of Cebu then claimed the country on behalf of King Philip. of Spain, the reigning monarch. There the first baptism took place.
Christianity predated our own country by almost a century. Over 85% of the Filipino population practices Catholicism.
About 30 years ago, in my old parish, a group of Filipino parishioners asked me if we could organize a Simbang Gabi celebration.
I had no idea what they were talking about, but I certainly learned it and adopted it. Simbang gabi [pronounced “Sim-BONG gah-BEE”] is a nine-day celebration starting December 16 during which Filipinos prepare for Christmas.
The beginning of Simbang Gabi in the Philippines dates back to 1668, when missionaries came from Mexico and introduced the practice.
The Spanish missionaries saw it as an opportunity to evangelize the people. Simbang Gabi taught the meaning of Christmas and how to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. At the same time, it was also used to catechize people on the meaning of Mass.
Simbang Gabi, from the start, has been a time of evangelism, where rich and poor, men and women, children and old people, gathered in community awaiting the coming of the Lord and rejoicing in the promise of the Messiah.
The priests decided to hold the liturgy before dawn so that the farmers could hear Mass before leaving to work in the fields.
Flickering candles in the star-shaped parols (Christmas lanterns) that adorned the humble houses guided the morning worshipers on their way to Simbang Gabi. The ringing of the church bells announced mass before dawn.
In some rural areas, an hour before the start of Simbang Gabi, a marching band was playing Christmas music all over the city. The priests went everywhere knocking on doors to wake up and gather the faithful to attend morning mass. as well as the fishermen woke up early to hear the gospel before going to their work and asking for the grace of a good harvest.
The tradition of Simbang Gabi continues in the United States, but it has been altered somewhat from its original form.
Most novena Masses are held indoors in the evening, not at dawn. In addition, not all parishes celebrate the full nine days. Sometimes neighboring parishes each take one of the nine nights, and people go from church to church for the novena.
In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the first celebration takes place at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and on the following days in parishes throughout the Archdiocese.
For over 10 years at St. John Fisher Church we have celebrated Simbang Gabi.
It usually took place on a Saturday night. We have an active and vibrant Filipino community here, and they have worked hard every year to make this celebration happen.
There is a special choir that sings many hymns in Tagalog. Most masses are in English. People dress in their traditional costume. It is an event open to all parishioners and appreciated by all participants.
For several years, Mgr Oscar Solis, then Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Filipino himself, presided over Mass. I was still concelebrating. Most of the time, it was just your servant, that is, the celebrant, an honorary Filipino for the night. Mass is followed by a reception with lots of Filipino food and entertainment in the Filipino tradition.
Last year due to COVID-19, the church was limited to a small choir and participants in the procession with the lyrics. We broadcast the Mass live, so that everyone can witness it from their homes.
This year to meet sanitary protocols, we have agreed to have the celebration at 11 a.m., so that the Filipino parishioners can host an outdoor reception and offer traditional Filipino cuisine in a healthy environment. It took place last Sunday.
Since you have your own way of celebrating the holiday season, I hope you enjoy the way our Filipino brothers and sisters prepare for the celebration of the birth of the Messiah a little more.
Bishop David Sork is the pastor of St. John Fisher Catholic Church in Rancho Palos Verdes.