Children take part in a Simbang Gabi celebration in St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Cinnaminson, in 2015. Parishes are gearing up for this year’s observances. Craig Pittelli photo

Children take part in a Simbang Gabi celebration in St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Cinnaminson, in 2015. Parishes are gearing up for this year’s observances. Craig Pittelli photo

By Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor

The way Father Mark Nillo sees it, there are two reasons why Simbang Gabi continues to be a beloved Filipino tradition: it brings people together to pray, exchange stories and enjoy various seasonal Filipino delicacies, and it can raise awareness to Catholic devotions unique and deeply rooted in the culture of certain ethnic groups.

“Although today the devotion comes mainly from the Filipinos’ joyful anticipation of the Christmas season, it’s like any other Catholic devotion … and  can be practiced by all the faithful, especially those who eagerly await the joyful commemoration of the Birth of Jesus,” said Father Nillo, parochial vicar of St. Michael Parish, West End.

Simbang Gabi, also known as Misa de Gallo (“Mass of the Rooster”), is a nine-day devotion that dates to the 1600s, when Spanish friars were trying to find a way to instill in the hearts and minds of Filipinos the substance of the Catholic religion and continue to evangelize. Church bells would start ringing as early as 3 a.m. during the last nine days of Advent – Dec. 16 to Dec. 24. The bells and the loud crowing of the roosters awakened the townspeople for 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. Mass, which allowed farmers and fishermen and their families to go to Mass before they worked in the fields or when they returned from the seas in the early hours of the morning.

With the 2018 Advent season quickly approaching, a number of parishes from around the four-county Diocese are incorporating the Filipino tradition as part of their pre-Christmas observances, including three in Monmouth County that are participating for the first time – St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold; St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel, and St. Anselm Parish, Wayside. The Co-Cathedral will welcome Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., to its Dec. 14 observance.

“This is a testament to the Filipinos’ great love for the Simbang Gabi tradition and how much they want to share this tradition with non-Filipinos,” Father Nillo said.

Father Nillo shared that he never attended a Simbang Gabi while growing up in his native Philippines. The first time he ever participated in a celebration was when he moved to New Jersey eight years ago, he said, recalling how surprised he was to know the devotion “made it to this part of the world.” He said he was also pleased to discover that parishes in the Diocese have their Masses in the evening due to winter weather and also to accommodate work schedules.

“It is also a testament to the strong support that the Filipino communities receive from parishes across the Diocese. We are grateful to the pastors and parishioners who have opened their doors to welcome the Filipinos and host the Simbang Gabi in their parishes,” said Father Nillo, who is chairman for the Monmouth County Simbang Gabi Community.

Father Nillo was pleased to share how the Monmouth County Simbang Gabi Community has chosen the Year of Youth as its theme for this year’s celebrations.

“It is time for the young people to shine,” he said, encouraging youth and young adults to be actively involved as greeters, Rosary leaders, altar servers, readers, gift bearers, choir members or serve on a decorating committee.

“Simbang Gabi really means to spiritually prepare ourselves for Christmas,” he said. “Let us use this wonderful time and opportunity to prepare our hearts to receive the Lord.”