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Philippines marks 500 years of Catholicism

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Imagine you’re riding on a city bus through the streets of Manila when you see a Catholic church through the window. Deacon Felipe Tubil “Ping” Averia can almost guarantee what would happen next. “I would bet my whole lunch money that 90 percent if not 100 percent on the bus including the driver and ticket conductors (would) make the sign of the cross,” he said. “Filipinos know that inside is the blessed Sacrament.”

Catholicism is a huge part of Filipino culture, said Deacon Averia, who grew up in the Philippines and now serves at St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax and as chair of the diocesan Filipino Catholic Community council. Today around 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, according to the 2015 census.

“Basically, the social calendar of the community in the Philippines revolves around the liturgical celebrations,” said Deacon Averia. He misses that in the Philippines each town has a patron saint and there’s always a “fiesta” you can go to on that feast day. “(Faith) is part of the warp and woof of our life,” he said. “It’s who we are.”

This year, the country celebrates 500 years since the arrival of Catholicism. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan and his crew of explorers landed in the Philippines and celebrated the first Mass there. The church in the Philippines is commemorating this jubilee year with the theme “Gifted to Give.”

“Thank God for the people who gave you faith and for all those to whom you will pass it on in turn,” said Pope Francis in a video message to the Filipino faithful. “During this jubilee year, let the words of Jesus guide you: ‘Without cost you have received, without cost you are to give.’ These words are an invitation to thank God for all those who handed on the faith to you. I myself can testify that you know how to hand on the faith; it is something you do very well, whether in your own country or abroad. Be grateful for the gift of faith. Renew your enthusiasm for evangelization. Reach out to others and bring them the hope and the joy of the Gospel.”

Pope Francis recalled that on his 2015 visit to the Philippines, at one gathering nearly 7 million people came. “You are generous and you know how to celebrate the feast of faith,” he said. “Never lose those qualities, even in the midst of difficulties.”

No matter where Filipinos go, they bring their faith with them, said Deacon Averia. “Before I moved here 20 years, I worked in Indonesia for six years, and the Filipino community is active in the local church (there). It’s amazing to see,” he said. In the Arlington diocese, “I think every parish where there's a Legion of Mary, I can bet you there’s a lot of Filipino ladies involved,” he said.

A diocesan ministry specifically for Filipino Catholics began in 1999 when Ed Tiong, a Filipino immigrant and parishioner of Corpus Christi Church in Aldie, founded the Filipino Ministry of Northern Virginia. The next year, the community celebrated Simbang Gabi, a traditional Filipino custom of attending Mass the nine days leading up to Christmas.

“It was a confirmation that there was spiritual hunger among the many Filipino Catholics missing their liturgical songs beautifully composed in our Tagalog language, homilies of Filipino priests, the Eucharistic meal and the reception after Mass that reminded us all of God's love for us,” he said. “It is so different being engaged when you celebrate the sights and sounds of where you once belonged.”

Simbang Gabi continues in the diocese each Advent. Additionally, the Filipino community gathers once a month for Sunday Mass at St. Bernadette Church in Springfield. Through Caritas Manila, they sponsor four college students in the Philippines. They founded Paaralang Pinoy, a culture and language program for Filipino children. They celebrate Masses for the feast days of Filipino saints, such as Sts. Pedro Calungsod and Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino saint, who was martyred in Japan.

The Fil/Am Ministry at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna hosted this year’s Mass for St. Lorenzo Ruiz Sept. 26. An 18-year-old Filipino parishioner, Sean Lagman, painted the image of the saint that adorned the altar during the Mass. Serenata, the Filipino choir, sang primarily in Tagalog during the liturgy. After Mass, attendees sat down to enjoy congee, a traditional Filipino soup, and pancit, a noodle dish.

It’s a joy to see Filipinos continue to share the faith they’ve been practicing for hundreds of years, said Deacon Averia. “I'm excited about seeing the faith being celebrated here,” he said.  “We as a Filipino people, we live our faith. (In) many countries around the world, you always find a small Filipino community and one thing that is common is they always have an involvement in their local parishes because they just can’t live without that faith.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021