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A Filipino novena prepares Catholics for Christmas

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For nine days beginning Dec. 15, Filipino Catholics participate in Simbang Gabi, a novena preparing for the birth of Christ.

Simbang Gabi is a traditional daily Mass in English with music in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. In 1997, St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington began observing the tradition with a 5 a.m. Mass. The evening Masses formally started in the Arlington Diocese in 2000 at several churches — St. Anthony in Falls Church, Queen of Apostles in Alexandria, St. Bernadette in Springfield, St. Agnes in Arlington, Christ the Redeemer in Sterling, Holy Family in Dale City, St. Timothy in Chantilly and St. Charles, which only did evening Mass in 2000 and returned to morning Mass the following year.

“Our Filipino Catholics use this as a pilgrimage,” said Corinne Monogue, director of the diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministries. “We have Masses in each of the (seven) deaneries around the diocese.”

Following the evening Mass, there is salu-salo, a form of fellowship and food reception that includes rice cakes, warm ginger ale and different Filipino delicacies.

Each evening Mass draws between 250 and 350 people, mostly Filipinos and local parishioners. The number of participants grows each Mass.

“We welcome all, and each year our non-natives are growing by leaps and bounds,” said Monogue. “Last year I saw more non-natives participating in Simbang Gabi than I have ever seen before and I’ve been here since 2005.”

This is the first year Simbang Gabi was held at St. Robert Bellarmine Chapel at George Mason University in Fairfax. Nathan Tsuda, a senior at GMU, said it shows how unified the Catholic community is here and around the world.

“It’s an awesome sight to see them bringing such a profound tradition to a college campus,” he said.

Tsuda participated all nine nights last year.

“The Masses are in preparation for the birth of Jesus, getting mind, body and soul ready for the glory of Christmas day,” he said.

Jet Sevilla, a parishioner of Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling, also attends all nine evenings.

“It’s my Christmas offering to God,” he said. “It’s how I prepare myself for Christmas and I try to promote the novena to others.”

Sevilla, who moved to Virginia from the Philippines in 2000 and has been involved with Simbang Gabi since, has seen growth and understanding of the novena and Filipino community.

He worked with Ed Tiong, the chief coordinator for the Filipino Ministry of Northern Virginia, to urge pastors to bring Simbang Gabi to their parishes. It started slowly, but with persistence, Sevilla said they gained recognition. Now it has grown to more than 20 parishes, with more volunteers and more coordinators in the parishes, according to Sevilla. He was glad to see the first night at GMU.

“If we are going to continue, we need the youth to learn about and practice the tradition,” he said.

Monogue said there is only one Mass celebrated on the last day so the pilgrims can prepare for the birth of Christ as a family with the bishop.

The final Mass will be celebrated by Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge Dec. 23 at St. Bernadette Church in Springfield at 7 p.m. Monogue said the Filipino community is overjoyed that they get to share this longstanding cultural tradition and their Catholic identity with Bishop Burbidge.

“At the salu-salo, (the Filipinos) are looking forward to sharing some of their cultural dances, singing and other expressions of their faith,” she said.

One part of the tradition is the use of parols, or star-shaped paper lanterns made from rice paper and bamboo. Traditionally, the parols were lit every morning and evening leading up to the birth of Christ. The diocese sponsors a workshop at the beginning of Advent every year.

The lanterns are used in the Simbang Gabi procession and then often hung near the altar.

“They’re not as commonly lit anymore now that we have electricity,” said Monogue. “They’re just a symbol and representation of in all ways being vigilant of the coming of Our Savior, Our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016