After the Mass, Bishop O'Connell posed for a photo with all the concelebrating priests in attendance.
After the Mass, Bishop O'Connell posed for a photo with all the concelebrating priests in attendance.
In a celebration of gratitude, joy and pride in their Catholic heritage, hundreds of Filipino Catholics from throughout the Diocese of Trenton gathered for Mass April 30 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the establishment of Christianity in the Philippines.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., principal celebrant, was joined by some 25 concelebrants including many Filipino priests currently serving in parishes and diocesan capacities. Msgr. Jeremias Rebanal, pastor emeritus and Church historian in the Archdiocese of Newark, delivered the homily.

PHOTO GALLERY: Mass for 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines

Reflecting on the many contributions of the Filipino faithful, Bishop O’Connell said, “As I travel around the Diocese, I see so many beautiful parishes and I meet so many beautiful Filipino families. Family is so important … and I see many young Filipino men and I want you to encourage some of them to think about becoming priests; joining the ranks of these great men who are here with us. … We need priests. We need Filipino priests to serve the Diocese of Trenton.”

History of Faith

In his homily, Msgr. Rebanal asked, “How do you squeeze into five minutes 500 years of history?” He went on to share high points of the founding of Christianity in the Philippines and the importance of unity in faith and nationality.

With the theme of “Gifted to Give,” (based on Matthew 10:8), the worldwide celebration was originally planned for 2021, but was delayed in some locations due to pandemic risks. The anniversary commemorates the arrival in 1521 of the Spanish fleet led by Ferdinand Magellan to the Philippines, bringing with it the Catholic faith.

For Father Augusto Gamalo, parochial vicar of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel, the importance of the anniversary extends to the impact that Filipino faith has had on the world. “Wherever the Filipinos go -- America, Europe, the Middle East -- we don’t only bring our talents, we bring our faith. Wherever Filipinos go they are always active members of their faith. It means everything to all of us. We bring our joy, our families and our different stories,” he said.

Though the Mass was celebrated in English, the diversity of the Philippines was represented in both the General Intercessions (which were prayed in Ilocano, Biocolano, Waray, Tagalog, Pangasinese, Pampango and Cebuano), and the multilingual music, which included the Bukas Loob sa Diyos Trenton Choir and accompanying violinist Kyle Villarin of the Filipino Choir in St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton, who led in the singing of hymns in both English and Tagalog.

Within the Diocese of Trenton, said Father Mark Nillo, parochial vicar of St. Michael Parish, West End, and coordinator of the Mass, “the presence of the Filipino Community has enriched the life of the Church.  In the parish communities where they are, they are involved as altar servers, lectors, Communion ministers, musicians, cantors, choir members, hospitality ministers, ushers, catechists, collection counters, Rosarians – even permanent deacons. 

“They have also introduced several Filipino Catholic novenas, devotions and customs, such as Santo Niño (Infant Jesus), Holy Thursday night visit to the Blessed Sacrament, the Santacruzan (St. Helen's finding of the true Holy Cross), San Lorenzo Ruiz the first Filipino saint and Misa De Gallo or Simbang Gabi. Currently there are 22 native Filipino priests working in the Diocese of Trenton, at least seven of whom were ordained by Bishop O'Connell since 2011, (the first ordination during the Bishop’s episcopacy). So, Filipinos have also enriched the number of priests in the Diocese of Trenton.”

Father Leandro Dela Cruz, pastor of St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, expressed his gratitude for the Spanish who shared their faith with the people of the Philippines. “It is being seen in the way we continue devotion to the faith, even in the midst of difficulties. It has made us understand what the faith is all about.”

Beloved Culture

Following the Mass, the cultural celebration continued with a reception in the Co-Cathedral's Dentici Hall featuring Filipino dishes. Food and its ability to bring people together was mentioned when participants were asked about their favorite Filipino traditions.

Richard Odon and Alezandra Maneclang, both of St. Dorothea Parish, Eatontown, acknowledge that Simbang Gabi, a nine-day festival before Christmas, is their favorite tradition. “There is a lot of being together as a community and as a family,” Maneclang said, noting that she especially loves the food, but also enjoys being with her family and signing in the choir.

Cynthia Lota of the Mary Queen of Peace prayer group in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral recalled being involved in a lot of ministries while in the Philippines. “When I arrived here in 1995, I was looking for a community. In 2000 I found it,” sharing that she is now very active and in charge of recruitment for the group.

Prior to the celebration of Mass, Father Nillo expressed hope that those marking the anniversary experience “a sense of gratitude for being a part of a significant event in the history of the Church; a renewed commitment to living and passing on the faith that has been handed on to us, and the assurance that God will continue to be with his people as they proclaim and share his Good News with others.”