Bishop Schlert Celebrates Mass for the Simbang Gabi Novena, A Filipino Tradition

By Celeste Behe

With the Nativity of Our Lord only two days away, a mood of eager expectation filled the nave of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, Easton, where the final Mass of the nine-day "Simbang Gabi" was about to begin. A Filipino tradition originating in the 16th century and carried out in our Diocese by the Filipino Catholic Community in the Diocese of Allentown (FCCDA), the Simbang Gabi is a novena of Masses intended as a spiritual preparation for Christ's birth.

Bishop Alfred A. Schlert was celebrant for the December 23rd Mass, which was preceded by a Knights of Columbus Honor Guard and accompanied by hymns sung in the Filipino language. Of the approximately 130 who were present at the Mass, the majority were Filipino.

Reflecting on the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which is the account of the Annunciation, Bishop Schlert stressed that, "when Christ first appeared on Earth" was "when Jesus took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary."

"This is important for us," the Bishop said, "because we live right now in a society where it's oftentimes doubted that in the womb, from the moment of conception, is a human person.

"Every man and woman at the moment of conception [has] the dignity of human life."

Although priests normally wear purple Mass vestments during the Advent season, the Church permits white vestments to be worn for the celebration of Simbang Gabi. The singing of the "Gloria," likewise omitted from Advent liturgies, is also allowed. These are fitting privileges for the unmitigatedly joyous Filipino novena of Masses that the Bishop called, "a beautiful cultural tradition that I'm so grateful for in our Diocese." The words "Simbang Gabi" translate as "Night Mass," a reference to the evening celebrations of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that comprise the tradition.

At the Simbang Gabi at St. Jane's, the Filipino Catholic Community Choir, accompanied by guitar and percussion, led the congregation in song. While many of the choir members were wearing red, which had been designated "the color of the day," a notable exception was Sr. Joan Bachinicha, a singing and guitar-playing religious who was clothed in the black and white habit of the Angelic Sisters of St. Paul.

In his homily, Bishop Schlert emphasized Mary's courage, and what it means to us today.

"Mary, yes, was born without Original Sin. We, of course, were born with Original Sin, washed away in Baptism. But like Mary, we don't know the future. We don't know how God will call us to cooperate with His divine plan, even, perhaps, at great sacrifice. When we feel our lives are closing in on us because of different sufferings or worries, let's - like Mary and Joseph - believe that a bigger thing is happening, the bigger will of God for us is unfolding."

This year's Simbang Gabi Masses were all held at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish, with a different priest presiding at each Mass. Since fellowship and family togetherness is vital to the Filipinos, a post-Mass potluck took place on the first and last nights of the novena, with simple "meryenda" (snacks) served on the remaining nights.

Remarking on the ease with which "we can get lost in the greatness of the Christmas season," Bishop Schlert offered a gentle reminder:

"It's important for us to remember that in just a few hours, we will celebrate the smallness of a Child who comes into a small manger, into a small family, and the great things that would come about as a result of it."

Photographs by Norm Steinruck


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