Mary honored, Catholics welcomed at Simbang Gabi

By Mary Beth Klatt | Contributor
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dressed in a leather jacket with a gauzy red and white scarf around his neck, Peter De Chavez, 30, looked like he was heading to the bars.

Instead, he was going to church at St. Wencelaus in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood to take part in the special Advent novena, Simbang Gabi, which has its roots in the Philippines.

“I heard about it from my friends,” De Chavez said with his hands tucked in his jacket. As a Filipino, he didn’t think twice about not going. “It’s part of our tradition.”

Indeed, this year many area Filipinos attend Simbang Gabi, which means “Night Mass.” The evening novena starts Dec. 15 and ends Dec. 23 so that parishioners can spend the most important holiday Masses in their own home church.

In the Philippines, the novena starts Dec 16 and ends Christmas Eve; each Mass, except for the final one (Misa de Aguinaldo, also known as the Golden Mass) starts at 4 a.m., just as it did in 17th century. This was the coolest part of the day in the often hot country. The early schedule also allowed farmers and fishermen do their work afterwards.

Spanish roots

The Spaniards started Simbang Gabi in the Philippines as a way to evangelize the locals. Their efforts worked so well that Simbang Gabi is now celebrated even in shopping malls.

The main theme continues to be evangelization and to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation just as it did back in the 17th century.

“It’s to increase the fervor of the people,” said Teresita Nuval, director of the archdiocese’s Office for Asian Catholics. “You can’t do it all in one night.”

The rosaries, homilies, prayers, chants and readings are a celebration, “a novena to Our Lady,” said Father Ronald Plomillo, associate pastor of St. Lambert Parish in Skokie.

The Marian observance aside, the theme of Simbang Gabi here in Chicago changes annually. This year, it was the Catholics Come Home initiative, encouraging Catholics who have left the church to return to the sacraments.

“The only way to do that is to evangelize families. Many of our families attend Simbang Gabi together,” said Nuval. “It’s a golden opportunity to evangelize and inspire vocations among the young and make sure they’re catechized.”

Simbang Gabi has been a regular Chicago tradition since 1986, Nuval said. Every novena, which takes 12 months to plan, becomes more popular; 45,000 people attend, Nuval said. This year 67 churches, nine churches in each region of the archdiocese, participated in Simbang Gabi. Cardinal George celebrated the Mass at St. Lambert. Other celebrants included Bishops Francis Kane, Gustavo Garcia-Siller and George Rassas.

Not just for Filipinos

Filipinos aren’t the only ones who attend, other ethnic groups are encouraged to come.

Steven Weyand Folkers, a self-described “Northern European mutt,” has been attending Simbang Gabi for 21 years at St. Lambert, where he is the music director.

“I love the warmth and hospitality of the Filipino community.” So much so, he’s married to a Filipino. His favorite song is Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster), a Filipino carol he plays on the organ.

Every year, you’ll see him wearing the traditional Barong Tagalog, the cream-colored embroidered shirt that is made from pineapple fiber just as the women wear the distinctive embroidered, galloon-edged dresses distinctive of the country.

All participating churches hang parols (Christmas lanterns), which symbolize the star of Bethlehem. The parols are also signs of welcome. The tradition hearkens back to the days before Jesus’ birth, Nuval said.

“Mary and Jesus can’t find a home. The parols show we are ready to receive Jesus,” she said. “We are a Christian home.”

The parols are even more important as parishioners reach out to estranged Catholics for the Catholics Come Home program.

While many unemployed Catholics participated in this year’s Simbang Gabi praying for job offers and more food, De Chavez wasn’t looking for answers to prayers. He is grateful for the blessings in his own life. He recently moved from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Chicago to start a job as a statistician at Northwestern University’s Chicago campus. He attended the novena to simply give thanks.