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Catholic Vancouver Nov. 19, 2018

Parishes invited to embrace Filipino Christmas Masses

By Agnieszka Ruck

A woman serves hot soup during a Simbang Gabi celebration at Rosary Hall in 2017. (Angelo Siglos photo)

It was still summertime when Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, started encouraging churchgoers to think about new ways to embrace Christmas this year.

In particular, he encouraged local Catholic parishes to embrace the Filipino community’s “beautiful gift” of Simbang Gabi. That centuries-old tradition includes celebrating nine Masses before dawn for nine days in honour of Our Lady and in anticipation of Christmas Dec. 15-23.

“It is my hope that Simbang Gabi will be embraced by the faithful beyond the Filipino community as a fitting way of preparing for Christmas,” Archbishop Miller wrote in a letter to pastors July 17.

Celebrating Mass for nine consecutive days during Advent has been a tradition in the Philippines since the 17th century. It has been popular in the Lower Mainland for at least a decade and a half.

“It is keeping our tradition and history in the Church in the Philippines alive,” said Homer Reyes, who immigrated to Canada 15 years ago.

The historic tradition is well established at his parish, Our Lady of Good Counsel. When the Surrey church first hosted Simbang Gabi 14 years ago, Reyes said hundreds of Filipinos came out.

It’s been increasing in popularity since; he said more than 1,000 people participated last year, filling the pews and sending organizers scrambling to find extra seating. That’s despite the fact they usually hold the celebration at 4:30 a.m.

“The purpose was to evangelize the farmer, who wakes up early and starts work,” said Reyes. “We started to adapt the tradition here. In the modern world, it is to expand the devotion to Mary, who is bringing the Messiah, called Emmanuel.”

A Simbang Gabi celebration at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish. (Chito Maravilla photo)

It may be a sacrifice to get to church so early, but it’s one many in his community are willing to make. Reyes has noticed an increasing number of non-Filipino parishioners at Simbang Gabi, including those who attend the church’s Indo-Canadian, Laotian, Polish, and Spanish Masses.

That’s good news for Filipinos, according to Mike Guia of Holy Trinity Parish in North Vancouver.

“It is a very gratifying, fulfilling thing for us Filipinos to be sharing our traditions,” he said.

Holy Trinity annually has a modest turnout for Simbang Gabi, welcoming 100-200 people to the early morning Masses. A couple hundred more will turn up if the novena Mass falls on a weekend or Christmas Eve.

“We’ve seen, every year, more and more people from other races,” said Guia. As a result, Holy Trinity now hosts the celebration in English and Tagalog.

At least half a dozen parishes host Simbang Gabi: Our Lady of Good Counsel and Holy Trinity, as well as Immaculate Conception Parish (Delta), St. Patrick’s (Vancouver), St. Mary’s (Vancouver), and St. Matthew’s (Surrey). Over the years, some communities have hosted all nine Masses, while others have jumped from church to church each day.

Advent tends to be a solemn occasion in the local Church, but not so for many Filipino Catholics. Simbang Gabi events often include skits, music, and a big community meal. Priests wear white robes instead of the traditionally solemn purple.

“We know for a fact that Mary has a son called the Messiah,” said Reyes. “We should be rejoicing! This is good news.”

Parishioners dress as Joseph and Mary for a skit during Simbang Gabi celebrations. (Angelo Siglos photo)

There were 837,130 Filipinos living in the country as of 2016, according to Statistics Canada, nearly a fifth residing in B.C.

Many tend to be committed Catholics, which can pose a challenge to them when they immigrate to a foreign, secular country with unfamiliar customs like Canada, said Deacon Greg Barcelon, head of the archdiocese’s Filipino Ministry.

“There is a very big pastoral concern there, that we provide something for them that they can connect with,” he said.

Earlier this year, Deacon Barcelon released guidelines on celebrating Simbang Gabi for priests who have never done so before.

“Our goal is to get these Filipinos who are not coming to church to come and integrate themselves and participate in our parishes. If we can do that, our Mass attendance will grow and we will help them maintain their faith in this very tough environment in Canada.”

Archbishop Miller also sees Simbang Gabi as an evangelization tool.

“It is an opportunity to welcome many non-practising Filipinos back to the Church” and “provides a much-appreciated and familiar liturgical celebration for the older members of the Filipino community,” he wrote in his letter.

He urged any parish with Filipino members to host the traditional pre-Christmas novena this year. Those who promise to do so will be recognized at Holy Rosary Cathedral Dec. 14, one day before Filipinos across the globe begin to celebrate the pre-dawn Masses once again.