Bishop O'Connell is joined at the altar by a dozen priest concelebrants during the Mass to mark the opening of the Simbang Gabi novena in Monmouth County. Vic Mistretta photos
Bishop O'Connell is joined at the altar by a dozen priest concelebrants during the Mass to mark the opening of the Simbang Gabi novena in Monmouth County. Vic Mistretta photos

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

A new light shined bright on a centuries-old tradition Dec. 14 with nearly 600 faithful coming together as St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral held its first Simbang Gabi observance.

In his opening remarks, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., shared that it was a “great joy to be here beginning this celebration, which is so very important to the Filipino community and to all of us.”

Photo Gallery:
 Simbang Gabi in St. Robert Bellarmine Parish

Related:  Simbang Gabi celebrations around the Diocese

For more than two decades, the Filipino Advent tradition of Simbang Gabi – a nine-day novena of spiritual preparation for the Birth of Christ – has unfolded in observances across the four counties of the Diocese. Freehold’s Cathedral saw the first of nine Monmouth County parishes that are hosting the gatherings. The novena will conclude Dec. 22 in St. Joseph Church, part of Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Keyport.

For Simbang Gabi newcomers, Librada Villanueva, who had a leading role in the planning, offered a brief history of the tradition, outlining its roots in the religious culture of the Philippines that harks back to the 1500s.

She explained that Simbang Gabi is also known as “night worship” and “Misa De Gallo” or “Mass of the Rooster – the name that comes from gathering for the celebration of the Eucharist in the pre-dawn hours of each of the nine days before Christmas. Devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary are also very much a part of the observance, she noted.

Faith and Tradition

As this year’s Simbang Gabi also commemorated the Year of the Youth proclaimed June 12 by Bishop O’Connell, hopes were high among organizers – which included the Mary, Queen of Peace Prayer Group, Co-Cathedral staff and volunteers – that many young people would attend.

And indeed during Mass, the iconic Star of David lantern, adorned with greenery and embellished with twinkling Christmas lights that is a mainstay of Advent decoration in the Filipino community, cast its welcoming glow on scores of youth.

Among them were Rachelle Cuyos, 21, and her sister Jennifer, 25. “We are first generation, and we don’t know a lot of family traditions,” said Jennifer Cuyos, who added that the siblings were eager to learn more about their heritage.

“This is one tradition that is celebrated by all generations,” he sister added.

The sisters, who are members of the Co-Cathedral, said they started going to the novena in Monmouth County churches several years ago. Every night is very special, they said, as it extends the focus of Christmas and places it where it really belongs, on Jesus, Mary and Joseph, as well as family and friends.

“For so many people, Christmas is just one day,” Rachelle Cuyos said. “Christmas is too important to just be one day and then it’s over.”

Medalla Santos, one of scores who traveled from other Monmouth County parishes to attend, said the night brought back memories of her own youth when she attended Simbang Gabi with her parents in the Philippines.

“I feel so blessed to be here tonight, to see the whole community getting together in such prayer and so very moved by seeing so many kids getting involved," said Santos, of Holy Innocents Parish, Neptune.

Karra Landen, 15, a member of the Co-Cathedral’s youth ministry, presented the gifts during Mass. “I loved the music,” she said of the Simbang Gabi celebration. “It was great to see one of the many ways Catholics celebrate around the world.”

Time for Preparation

Music by the BLD Philippine Music Ministry set a reverential and buoyant tone throughout the Mass and the homily, which was offered by Father Oscar Sumanga, adjutant judicial vicar and judge in the diocesan Tribunal.

Connecting the night’s Scriptures, including Matthew 11:16-19, to the “What’s in it for me?” contemporary mindset often encountered today, Father Sumanga asked the faithful to focus on what unites them with their sisters and brothers in the name of God.  

He spoke of how the people of Jesus’ generation reflected a similar attitude as they found “reason to take offense” in the teachings and conduct of Jesus – who dines with sinners and tax collectors – and John the Baptist, who lives a “different life in the desert.” He also urged all to reflect on what their on reactions would be if Jesus appeared in these current, tumultuous times and asked them to “change the hardness of your hearts.” Would they ask what is the most minimal thing they can do or focus on what “unites us rather than separates us?” Father Sumanga asked.

The season of Advent, set aside as a time of prayer and reflection, is a good time to ponder such questions, he said. “It’s a time to prepare to bring ourselves back to Jesus, who is always there” with the answers.