By Rudy M. Viernes
In Marin county, in Northern California, it will be a three-day celebration of Simbang Gabi masses from Dec. 15 to17 at the St. Isabella’s church in San Rafael, CA. The masses will be celebrated by Fr. Cyril O’Sullivan and Fr. Ephrem Tillya on December 15 and 16, respectively. On December 17th, the mass is con-celebrated by Bishop Emeritus Jess Cabrera of Alaminos, Pangasinan, Philippines, and Fr. Lu Palacpac, pastor of Saint Raphael Parish in San Rafael, CA.
Anywhere else in the world, especially in cities where the Filipino diaspora is prevalent, Simbang Gabi has been celebrated to continue the age-old Christmas tradition. In fact, Pope Francis presided over Simbang Gabi mass in Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Basilica on Gaudate Sunday, December 15, 2019. Some 150 priests and the Filipino community attended the mass. It was the first time the papacy had celebrated a “dawn” mass.
In the home country Simbang Gabi is a series of 9-day morning masses that start on Dec. 16 and culminates on Christmas eve. It is when Catholic churches start to open their doors shortly before the break of dawn to welcome the faithful to attend masses. It is also known in Spanish as “Misa de Gallo,” or “Mass of the Rooster,” so-called because it is in the early morning when the fowl starts to crow, and some farmers start to work in the fields.
The Simbang Gabi was introduced by the Spanish friars in the Philippines in the 16th century. It is manifested by the devotional heritage of the Friars to Christianize the Philippines. It was a pagan country when Magellan, a Portuguese navigator under the employ of Spanish royalty, landed on its shores in 1521.
In the United States, where there are clusters of Filipinos, Simbang Gabi is celebrated in the evening in order to accommodate the needs of members of the community who have different work schedules. No matter how and when the celebration is held Simbang Gabi provides an indication of the depth of the Catholic faith among Filipinos who constitute 80% of the 117 million population in the Philippines, according to 2023 census. It is also known as an expression of sacrifice and dedication for it takes an amount of will and discipline to get out of bed so early in the morning to go to church in dire need to obtain special favors.
The Catholic clergy in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, headed by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, acknowledges the ever presence of Filipinos in church services who are vital cogs of parish activities. Church activities are vibrant and alive because of Filipino parishioners who bring with them their deeply Catholic faith. They are avid altar servers, Eucharistic ministers, lecturers, choir members, collectors, greeters.
Fr. Mark Reburiano, after 12 years as pastor of St. Isabella, now the parish priest of St. Gregory Church in San Mateo, CA, recommended to St. Isabella parishioners to request the Archbishop to continue Simbang Gabi as an annual religious event. The pastor Fr. Cyril O’Sullivan agreed to allow Simbang Gabi to continue. It is spearheaded by the Filipino-Americans of Northern California Organization (FANCO), led by its current president, Riz Marsella.
The Simbang Gabi mass starts a 7 pm preceded by a Rosary and reconciliation. There will be a fellowship after every mass and a Christmas fiesta celebration on Sunday, Dec. 17, at the parish hall.