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Archbishop to celebrate Simbang Gabi


Filipino-American Catholics in the San Francisco area are planning their most expansive Simbang Gabi novena ever, with a Dec. 13 “commissioning Mass” to be celebrated by Archbishop George Niederauer at St. Mary’s Cathedral as participants go forth to their parishes to make the Christmas tradition an Archdiocese-wide event.

“This is the first such Mass in the Archdiocese to usher in Simbang Gabi, a novena that begins Dec. 15 (if in the evening) or Dec. 16 (if in the morning),” organizer Nellie Hizon said. “For several years, individual parishes celebrated Simbang Gabi quite in isolation, with no formal recognition on the archdiocesan level. It was a plain novena of Masses. Held in most parishes at odd –too early – hours, it almost seemed like an underground church activity.”

Hizon, a member of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, said all parishes were informed of the event this year and 27 are participating in the novena. “The idea is to have non-Filipinos be aware of a beautiful spiritual tradition from the Philippines,” she said.

Adding to the interest in this year’s Simbang Gabi, Hizon received an answer to a letter she wrote Pope Benedict XVI asking that he send his special blessings to Filipinos for their devotion to the Christmas tradition. She wrote the letter before traveling to New York last April to hear the pontiff speak at Yankee Stadium. Through a contact who attended a reception with the pope, the letter found its way into his hands.

The archdiocesan chancellor, Father Michael Padazinski, wrote Hizon June 5 on behalf of the Vatican Secretary of State. “Know that the Holy Father has asked that I convey to the Filipino community of the Archdiocese of San Francisco his prayerful support and Apostolic Blessing in anticipation of the upcoming celebration of Simbang Gabi,” he wrote.

The commissioning Mass will be “the first such celebration in the Archdiocese and will give all who attend a chance to be inspired by this very prayerful and joyous celebration,” said Doug Benbow, the cathedral’s director of liturgy and Christian initiation.

Benbow continued: “ The most important thing for those who attend this event is to take away the notion of each individual being a reflection of the light of Christ – in their homes, at work or school and where they recreate. Building the kingdom of God is what we are commissioned to do, by reflecting the light of Christ, which has led us since the day of our baptism and will continue to lead us until we stand in the presence of that light in eternity. This time of Advent preparation is the perfect time to ponder how this light influences our thoughts, actions and spiritual lives.”

Simbang Gabi, or Mass at Dawn, is a nine-day novena to prepare for Christmas. Traditionally, the novena begins Dec. 16, as early as 4 a.m.

Translated literally, Simbang Gabi means Mass at Night, for it is dark as night when this Mass is celebrated.

In or about 1587, the Spanish missionary friars in the Philippines held a series of Masses outdoors to prepare for Christmas. Celebrated in the early morning hours when roosters crow, the Mass became known as Misa de Gallo, meaning Mass of the Rooster. This gave the farmers and fishermen a chance to hear Mass before setting out for the fields or upon returning from the sea.

Worshipers at the commissioning Mass will bring parols, or Filipino lanterns, which are traditional Christmas symbols in the homeland. Also on Dec. 13, the annual Filipino lantern festival and parade will be held in downtown San Francisco.

A parol is a traditional Filipino Christmas decoration, a five-pointed star originally made of thin bamboo frames and covered with colored cellophane or rice paper. It can have two tails that serve as the rays of the star and remind Filipino Christians of the star of Bethlehem.

Today, parols have become more colorful because of the twinkling bulbs in dazzling patterns lighting each lantern. A parol symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness, and evokes the shared faith and hope of humankind. For more information on the Dec. 13 Mass, contact Doug Benbow at (415) 567-2020 or Nellie Hizon at (415) 699-7927.

Many parishes schedule Simbang Gabi novena:

Dec. 15-23, (evening):
• 6:30 p.m: St. Veronica
• 7 p.m: Epiphany, Corpus Christi, St. Andrew, St. Augustine, St. Elizabeth, St. Paul of the Shipwreck, at St. Matthew with St. Bartholomew, St. Catherine, St. Gregory, St. Luke, St. Mark, St. Timothy • 7:30 p.m: Holy Angels, Our Lady of Mercy

Dec. 16-24 (morning):
• 5:30 a.m.: Holy Name of Jesus, Our Lady of Perpetual Help
• 6 a.m.: St. John the Evangelist, St. Patrick (San Francisco), at St. Stephen’s with St. Anne of the Sunset, St. Brendan, St. Cecilia, St. Emydius, St. Finn Barr, St. Gabriel, Star of the Sea.
Partial observation:
• St. Bruno: (triduum) 5 a.m. on Dec. 22, 23 and 24 • Mater Dolorosa: (triduum) 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 21, 22 and 23 • All Souls: 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 21.

(By Rick DelVecchio)