Story by Georgiana Francisco | Correspondent
Simbang Gabi may be a long-treasured tradition in the Philippines that has begun to grow around the Diocese’s parishes and beyond, but for Father Leandro Dela Cruz, it’s a childhood memory, too.
“Simbang Gabi has always been close to my heart, especially when I was a child in the Philippines,” said the Filipino priest and parochial vicar in St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, Deal. “Now that I am a priest, it means so much more to me, and it’s just wonderful to see the Filipino community come together not only to celebrate Simbang Gabi, but also to enjoy the camaraderie of the Filipino community and partake of the traditional foods that are presented here this evening.”
Photo Gallery: St. Charles Borromeo Church, Cinnaminson
Photo Gallery: St. Ann Church, Lawrenceville
Simbang Gabi, pronounced Sim-BONG-a-bee, begins every Dec. 16 and is one of the longest and most important religious celebrations in the Philippines, originating more than 600 years ago. In the United States, Filipino immigrants brought with them this distinct tradition, which is now growing significantly, especially in New Jersey.
This past Advent saw more than 20 parishes participating in the series of Masses for nine consecutive days before Christmas Day. The liturgical significance of Simbang Gabi emanates from the Season of Advent being the time of spiritual preparation and purification to worthily welcome and receive the Child Jesus in one’s midst. Unlike the traditional dawn Mass in the Philippines, the nine-day novena Masses held in the Diocese took place at 7 p.m. After the Masses, many were invited to parish-hosted buffet dinners with an array of delicacies and popular Filipino dishes.
On Dec. 11, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., celebrated the ninth and last Mass of the Simbang Gabi that was held in St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Cinnaminson. This was the first time in nine years the parish, which has a large Filipino population, held the novena of Masses in honor of the Blessed Mother at 5 p.m. rather than at the original “dawn Mass” at 5:30 a.m.
The Mass began with the parish Filipino choir singing as nine children representing each day of the Novena carried large, colorful paper stars and a white paper lantern on long sticks to the altar, where sat a tall, vibrant ceramic rooster. The rooster is symbolic of when, at the first sound of dawn, families in the Philippines would awaken and walk to the nearest parish church for Mass.
In his homily, Bishop O’Connell spoke about how the prophet Isaiah, a man of dreams, with visions of what he hoped would become a reality for the people of Israel, found it difficult to bring the children of Israel back to God. “They began to turn against their covenant with God and began turning in on themselves,” he said.
“Living almost eight centuries before Christ was born, Isaiah, the prophet of what could be, the prophet of what should be once the Messiah came, told those exhibiting self-destructive behavior, that the best of times were ahead, if they would turn their hearts back to Him,” the Bishop said. “His words are repeated again and again: … the parched desert will bloom, flowers will start to grow, people will rejoice again, the weak-kneed will be strong, and the frightened will fear no more. That’s his vision.”
After Mass, parishioners enjoyed a feast of traditional foods and music.
For Caleb Saludum, a student at Rutgers whose father in in the Filipino choir, Dec. 11 was the first time he had participated in the novena. “I’m amazed at the depth of spirituality of our culture and surprised at how colorful and festive it is,” Saludum said.
On Dec. 23, the Bishop again celebrated the last day of the Simbang Gabi novena, this time at St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, where more than 800 parishioners filled the church. It was the 13th year the parish has celebrated Simbang Gabi.
The Mass began with a large procession that started with the Knights of Columbus, children, the many concelebrants from participating parishes and those carrying an almost translucent statue of the Blessed Mother, which was placed near the altar. The choir was resplendent in black dresses and bright pink shawls.
Mercer County participants included parish priests from St. David the King, Princeton Junction; St. Vincent de Paul, Yardville; Incarnation-St. James, Ewing; St. Raphael-Holy Angels, Hamilton; St. Anthony of Padua, Hightstown; St. Gregory the Great, Hamilton Square; St Paul, Princeton, and St Ann Parish.
Addressing the congregation, Bishop O’Connell, referring to the Gospel, talked about how Simbang Gabi was indicative of the great expectation the faithful have in awaiting the Christ child. Recalling the story of Zacchariah’s relatives asking him what he was going to name the baby he and Elizabeth were expecting, he was unable to speak, not wanting to call the child John.
“Zachariah was struck dumb because God knew what he was doing something different something that would foretell of the Messiah, who would also be different. What kind of name is that, I’m sure they all wondered, as it certainly wasn’t the name of any of the relatives or ancestors of Zachariah or Elizabeth. This child was different. This child was to be the forerunner of someone much greater, indicating that God was ready to make a new covenant with his people.”
At the end of the Mass, the Bishop asked God to pray for all Filipinos in the parish, in the Diocese and in the Philippines.
Marissa and Jonas Moulic, who attended the Mass with their three young girls, talked about the Filipino culture, saying, “It is deeply entrenched in the Catholic faith, and those who make the novena are very serious about it, making every attempt to go to each of the nine masses.”
Romy Buerano, one of the first to organize Simbang Gabi in the area, remembered that in this beginning of this century, individuals of various parishes wanted to bring the Christmas tradition of “Simbang Gabi” to their churches.
“They wanted both Americans and Filipinos to experience this beautiful celebration,” Buerano said.
Simbang Gabi coordinator Jhun Allanique said, “We hope to bring the message of Simbang Gabi to a wider audience, not just throughout the Diocese, but also throughout the state.
“Many Asians and Latinos have already shown an interest in and are participating in the nine-day Novena to Our Lady. Now, we hope to get the attention of all Catholics by traveling to many churches as possible, as though being guided by the star of Advent,” Allanique said.