Saturday, December 04, 2010

Merry Simbang: The Church's "Doorbuster" Returns

Sure, we might still be a week out from the annual "coming out" party par excellence of American Catholicism's growing present and dominant future. But tonight -- not to be outdone -- another of the faith's rising tides on these shores is yet again getting to show its colors on the Stateside church's most prominent stage.

Starting with a mile-long procession from the 1011 Chancery, for the fourth year running New York's Filipino community kicks off the islands' time-honored Simbang Gabi -- the novena of pre-dawn Masses leading up to Christmas Eve -- with an evening Eucharist in Tagalog in the eminent confines of St Patrick's Cathedral.

Thanks to the massive weekend crowds that flood Midtown Manhattan this time of year, the scheduling makes for as much a showcase as the surrounding shop-windows. Then again -- as this video from a prior Simbang launch at St Pat's relays -- it doesn't hurt that the Pinoys know how to bring it... and bring it big:

Of course, given the significance, we should be seeing it all in the pages of tomorrow's Times... or, at least, we can dream.

A relative newcomer to the Stateside tradition of an annual diocesan gathering in the Novena's run-up, New York's getting a head start on the custom's twin hot-spots out West: while Cardinal Roger Mahony has already been handing off presiding duties for several major events to his successor-in-waiting, Archbishop José Gomez (who'll formally take the reins in early March), the departing LA titan is reserving to himself next week's kickoff in his cathedral -- which, in the US diaspora's largest Filipino hub, routinely swells its 4,500-seat capacity for the event. And further North, on the other side of the coin, next weekend's Launch Mass in Seattle's St James Cathedral -- perhaps the grand temple's most colorful day of the year given the parols (star-shaped lanterns) from each parish that are hung from its ceiling (top) -- will be the first led by the freshly-installed Archbishop Peter Sartain... finally joined at its altar by his auxiliaries.

From there, the celebration heads into the trenches; over recent years, close to half of Los Angeles' 288 churches have been hosting what could be called American Catholicism's "Doorbuster Mass," while in Chicago, almost 70 communities are taking part as the Novena marks the 25th anniversary of its arrival in the 2.4 million-member Windy City church.

An inculturated form of the venerable Rorate caeli Advent Mass brought by the Spanish colonists some five centuries back, though the celebration of what's also called the "Misa de Aguinaldo" ("Mass of the Gift") is normally still observed between 4 and 5am in the Philippines itself -- where churches (or other, bigger venues) invariably fill to overflowing for the cherished practice -- the daily liturgies in the States are often, if not usually, transferred to the evening hours in order to accommodate the faithful's work schedules.

Regardless of its time, though, the tradition isn't just liturgical -- a potluck breakfast or supper customarily follows the Mass. And above all, like all the best of things Catholic, organizers invariably spare no degree of energy to spread the word that everyone -- everyone -- is welcome.

Even if Asians as a whole comprise roughly 4 per cent of the 68 million-member Stateside church, the Filipino diaspora -- which, together with the Vietnamese, dominates the demographic at-large -- shows its ecclesial strength in more "deep-cut" numbers.

Most years, the nation's priestly ordinands of Filipino birth or roots come close to forming 4% of the country-wide class all on their own. Add in the Vietnamese -- another group known for their emphatic devotion, one often tested and strengthened by trials -- and on the whole, the Asian community is contributing twice its size to the future of the nation's clergy.

Lest anyone needed it, further proof that this ain't your father's American Catholicism... and that, just like its Lord, every December powerfully recalls a new birth of hope -- and, indeed, redemption -- for the faith on these shores.

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In the place that gave John Paul II his largest crowd in life (5 million in Manila for World Youth Day 1995), come its 16 December launch, this year's Simbang Gabi will, as ever, see pre-dawn throngs in the Philippines' churches, and lights galore all around.

In the islands' capital church, however, the celebrations will be taking place under tightened guidelines, recently released to combat "abuses" of the rite.

Above all, one aspect of the November clarifications from the archdiocese of Manila made a splash across the Pacific -- namely, the instruction that "Simbang Gabi may not be celebrated in malls or shopping centers... where the celebration of the Holy Eucharist is needlessly exposed to shoppers that are indifferent to the celebration."

Apparently, this was an issue.

The liturgies' timing was another concern raised by the Manila chancery; while Filipino Simbang Gabi -- complete with anticipatory Gloria and white vestments -- was widely moved to the evenings during the 1972-81 martial law period to comply with curfew regulations imposed by the Marcos regime, in some cases it wasn't returned to the mornings as the people became accustomed to it. In response, Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales underscored that "from the beginning," the Novena "has always been celebrated at an early hour, from 4 to 5 o’clock" (emphases original) -- everything else, he said, is to be celebrated as the standard Mass of the Advent day.

Speaking of Rosales (left), this Simbang Gabi is likely to be his last at the helm of the 2.8 million-member Manila church; with the cardinal soon to turn 79, the Filipino bishops' recently-begun ad limina visit to Rome -- the first of the current pontificate -- is likely doubling as B16's "job interview" for the next occupant of the Chair of Sin.

Back home, meanwhile, the Pinoy bench remains locked in combat with the country's Congress over a long-controversial reproductive health bill that'd markedly increase access to contraceptives far more than the heavily-Catholic nation currently allows.

In the latest development on that count, after an opinion survey of Filipinos reported support for the measure from nearly seven-tenths of the country in the face of heavy hierarchical opposition, an official with the Filipino bishops' conference called for an end to polling on the topic, citing the "undue influence" such findings might cause on legislators.