“Mabuhay!” Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades urged a packed St. Therese, Little Flower Church, South Bend, on Gaudete Sunday. The word is Tagalog for “Rejoice,” one of several phrases Bishop Rhoades used at the beginning of the 5:30 p.m. Mass on Saturday, Dec. 16. Linguistic coaching was provided by Father Enno Dengo, CP, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame who has been eager to share his traditions and introduce the bishop to his countrymen.
“There’s nothing exotic about the Mass itself,” Father Dengo explained of the evening’s liturgy. “What’s special is the fervor with which we celebrate.”
In the Philippines, Simbang Gabi is a novena; nine Masses taking place from Dec. 16 through Christmas Eve. They are traditionally celebrated at 4 a.m. to accommodate farmers who need to be in the fields by the break of dawn; in fact, “Simbang Gabi” means “Night Mass.” An alternative name, in Spanish, is “Misa de Gallo” or “Mass of the Rooster.”
In the 17th century the Church in the Philippines received a “rescript” or permission from the Vatican, to anticipate the celebration of Christmas in this way, using white vestments and singing “Christ is born” before the end of Advent — just for these pre-dawn novena Masses. Expatriates in the northern latitude usually compress the celebration into a single evening Mass, followed by a feast in the parish hall.
People of Philippine origin are active in several area parishes of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, but came together at Little Flower for this occasion — the fourth year they have done so. Many men wore embroidered shirts, and the women had colorful dresses with butterfly sleeves. Women in the enthusiastic choir directed by Mariflor Royeca wore gold-trimmed black dresses with large red corsages. Songs, readings and prayers alternated between English and Tagalog.
While he was studying in Rome 30 years ago, Bishop Rhoades was present at the canonization of Lorenzo Ruiz, the Philippines’ first recognized saint. He said he also admires St. Pedro Calungsod, a missionary catechist who was martyred as a teenager.
Underlining the Gaudete theme, Bishop Rhoades encouraged the faithful to journey with Mary and Joseph, and he pointed out that the angel’s first word to Mary is better translated “Rejoice” than “Hail.” He also quoted Pope Benedict XVI: “Joy is the true gift of Christmas” — and Pope Francis: “Don’t be a sourpuss.” Bishop Rhoades was pretty sure, he said, that that particular word hadn’t appeared in an official Church document before the current pontiff.
The Simbang Gabi tradition expresses the joy of the Catholic faith and the joy of the Gospel, as we rejoice that the Lord is near, Bishop Rhoades told the worshippers during his homily. “We rejoice in the greatest gift we could ever receive, the gift of Jesus Christ as our Savior. Today, Gaudete Sunday, the Church invites us to rejoice. As Pope Benedict XVI once said: “Joy is the true gift of Christmas.”
In the second reading of the day, St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, also saying, “Rejoice always.” “Rejoice always! That is the Christian invitation. Yet we know that with life’s problems and challenges, it is not always easy to live in joy,” the bishop said. “St. Paul gives us some tips on how to live in joy. He writes: ‘Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks …’. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. When we pray, when we are thankful, the Holy Spirit gives us joy.
“On this Gaudete Sunday, let us think about our lives and heed God’s invitation to joy,” he continued. “We’re called, Pope Francis says, to be messengers of the joy of the Gospel. In the world, there is often a lack of joy. To be messengers of joy, we must first experience the joy of the Gospel in our own hearts. This means listening with faith and perseverance to the Word of God. It means allowing ourselves to experience the love of God and His consolation in our life. Only then can we bring that joy to others.
“The joy of Christmas, the joy of the Gospel, is meant for all. This is the joy we should mean when we say to others: ‘Merry Christmas!’ It is much more than a happy holiday. It is not something fleeting and transitory. It is the joy of God’s amazing love, the joy of God who comes as a tiny infant lying in a manger. This is the joy of the Simbang Gabi celebration,” the bishop concluded.
After Mass the worshippers not only enjoyed a “salo-salo,” or “shared meal” featuring traditional foods, but extended their hospitality to others. Participants at the meal were shepherded into line by Virginia Coloma, who happened to be celebrating her 74th birthday. She has only been in the United States for six years, she said; but she seemed to know everyone in the room. She put the number of meal guests at 400.
Entertainment was provided by several groups: guests from LaPorte; a Youth for Life group associated with the Couples for Christ movement; and 11 tiny angels complete with wings and halos, who stole the show with their mime and movement to the song “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” Dancers in a variety of colorful costumes performed traditional dances from several different islands, using poles parasols, fans, flower wreaths, scarves and baskets worn on their heads.
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