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Filipinos prepare for Christmas with Simbang Gabi

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In 1996, Bobby Chan prayed that his wife Cathy would get a kidney transplant for Christmas. But he wanted to pray in a special way — by participating in Simbang Gabi, the Filipino custom of attending Mass for nine days leading up to Christmas. So he spoke to the pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, Father Gerry Creedon, about starting the tradition at the parish. Some time later, Cathy did get a kidney and 25 years later, the parish still celebrates Simbang Gabi.

More than a dozen parishes around the diocese also participated in this year’s Simbang Gabi. The opening Mass was celebrated Dec. 15 at St. Thomas à Becket Church in Reston with Father Jamie Workman, vicar general. The closing Mass is scheduled to be celebrated by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge Dec. 23 at St. Louis Church in Alexandria. This year also marks the 500th anniversary of Catholicism in the Philippines. 

Traditionally, Simbang Gabi Masses were celebrated at dawn so laborers could attend the Mass in the cool of the morning and eat breakfast before work, said St. Charles parishioner Litong Roa. Star-shaped lanterns called parols would be hung outside homes to light the way to church before the sun rose. While many parishes now celebrate Simbang Gabi Masses in the evening, St. Charles has Mass at 5 a.m., said Roa. 

“I remember when I approached a pastor in the diocese who did a double take when I told him that we were looking for priests to say Masses for nine days at 5 a.m.,” said Roa. “He just looked at me and said, ‘Such faith.’ And that’s all it is really — simple faith that whatever we are facing, we can always pray for our intentions, even if they are not met.”

Some believe the sacrifice of waking up early is part of the joy of the nine days. “I am not a morning person and came to this tradition because of my wife,” said parishioner Randy Bender.  “However, my faith has grown by leaning into the sacrifice of getting up very early to sing God’s praises in the holy Mass.” 

At St. Charles, the celebration has become multicultural. “What I have found special about this tradition here at St. Charles is that it is not exclusively Filipino,” said Bender. “(My wife) Andrea and I are not Filipino but a number of non-Filipinos attend as well. The Mass is in English but most of the music is in Tagalog. I even joined the small choir we have after getting more comfortable with the music.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021