MANILA, Philippines – Pope Francis made history by celebrating the Philippines’ traditional Simbang Gabi at the center of global Catholicism, as he acknowledged the role of Filipinos, especially its migrant workers, in the growth of the Catholic Church.
“Continue to be smugglers of the faith,” Francis told Filipinos in impromptu remarks at the end of the Simbang Gabi, literally translated as “Night Mass,” at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City on Sunday, December 15. The Pope was alluding to how overseas Filipinos “smuggle” their faith even to places where it is dangerous to be Catholic, such as the Middle East.
The Simbang Gabi is the Filipino tradition of attending Mass at dawn, or in the evening, for 9 consecutive days in preparation for Christmas.
Francis led the Simbang Gabi at Saint Peter’s Basilica at 4:30 pm on Sunday in Rome (11:30 pm in Manila). Saint Peter’s Basilica is significant because Catholics believe it stands on the burial site of Saint Peter, leader of Jesus’ 12 apostles, who is considered the first pope.
The Simbang Gabi has already been held 4 times in Saint Peter’s Basilica, but it is the first time that a Pope presided over a Simbang Gabi. This comes as the Philippines, in 2021, is set to mark the 500th year of Christianity in the country.
The Pope said in his homily that while the Simbang Gabi has been held in the Philippines for centuries, “in recent decades, thanks to Filipino migrants, this devotion has crossed national borders and has arrived in many other countries.” The Pope was referring to the exodus of more than two million Filipinos to other countries to provide a better life for their families.
“You, dear brothers and sisters, who have left your land in search of a better future, have a special mission. Your faith should be leaven in the parish communities to which you belong. Today I encourage you to increase opportunities for meeting to share your culture and spiritual wealth while at the same time allowing yourselves to be enriched by the experiences of others,” said the Pope.
Father Ricky Gente, chaplain of Filipinos in Rome, thanked the Pope toward the end of Sunday’s Mass. “Almost 500 years ago, European missionaries planted the seed of faith in our beloved Philippines. We are happy and blessed because after 5 centuries, we are here in Europe and throughout the world, transmitting the joy and the beauty of the Gospel,” said Gente.
Gente also recalled the Pope telling him, before the last celebration of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, that “Filipino women are smugglers of the faith.” The Filipino priest said, “Yes, it is true, we carry with us, wherever we go, the torch of faith of the Gospel in the world – the same faith and Gospel that has been transmitted to us.”
The Simbang Gabi on Sunday was a papal thumbs-up that further highlights the Philippines on the global Catholic map. Just a week earlier, the Pope appointed Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Philippines’ most popular archbishop, as the new prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples – what could soon become the second most important office in the Vatican.
Veteran Vatican analyst John Allen wrote that Tagle’s appointment “puts an exclamation point on the ‘Philippines moment’ in global Catholicism. Allen noted that the Philippines is the world’s 3rd largest Catholic country.
“In many spots on the Catholic map, including parts of the US, Filipinos today are the new Irish, meaning missionaries who keep local churches alive,” Allen wrote. – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.