Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Preps: Tree, Lights... Parols

With another edition of the "Super Bowl" safely in the books, the ecclesial spotlight now shifts to Stateside Catholicism's other rising Advent juggernaut: the Filipino tradition of Simbang Gabi ("Dawn Mass"), the novena of liturgies and meals that'll fill churches from far-flung exurbs to well over 100 parishes in the nation's largest diocese -- and another 70 in its runner-up -- as it begins tonight or early tomorrow.

Heralded in the heavily-Catholic Philippines by the sounds of church bells and brass bands parading through neighborhoods, the nine days of prayer invariably have a 4 or 5am start in their birthplace, where churches either keep their doors flung open to accommodate the overflow crowds, or ditch the buildings altogether for outdoor Eucharists.

First observed by the islands' Spanish colonists in the early 17th century, Simbang Gabi's evolved into a raucous twilight vigil, that the church might accompany the expectant Virgin in prayer along the final run-up to Christmas. In its Stateside incarnation, though, the liturgies are often moved to day's end to reflect the pewfolk's work schedules, but still, the celebration largely remains an organic, family-based one, especially when it comes to the traditional post-Mass potlucks, which take place regardless of what time of day the novena is held.

What's more, an increasing number of dioceses have been working in recent years to gather the celebrating communities at the novena's beginning or end for one large cathedral liturgy, often highlighted by the blessing of the parishes' traditional star-shaped lanterns, or parols, one of which hangs in each sanctuary to symbolize the days' central focus on the imminent Arrival, the Star of Bethlehem. Among others, these local "commissioning" Masses have been held over recent days in LA (above), Chicago, San Francisco, New York's St Patrick's (which took up the custom just last year), and Seattle's St James Cathedral, whence comes the shot at the top of the post.

(Speaking of the latter, St James' rector recently sparked an unrelated stir with a widely-circulated piece in America calling for a delay and "dialogue" before the implementation of the controversial revised Roman Missal in English.

(Viewed by some in progressive liturgy-circles as the most significant ecclesial protest since the 95 Theses -- at least, so it seems -- Fr Michael Ryan's "What If We Just Said Wait?" petition has racked up nearly 4,500 signatures since its 4 December launch. As one Anglophone conference was recently briefed, the publication of the new Mass-texts is anticipated for early 2011, with the long-planned global catechetical effort to prepare the faithful for the change slated to roll out early next year.)

Like the Guadalupe feast, the Simbang Gabi shines an annual spotlight on the ongoing cultural and demographic shift of the Stateside church, one as seismic in impact as it's been quiet in its emergence.

Despite representing around 4% of the nation's 64 million Catholics, for example, Asians comprise 12% of US seminarians; while Filipinos have the second-largest share of the group, the bulk of the three-fold weight-pulling comes from the Vietnamese community, whose prolific contribution to has seen them dubbed American Catholicism's "New Irish."

Asia's most Christian country, over 80% of the Philippines' 90 million residents identify as Catholic. Closer to home, meanwhile, the longtime head of Filipino ministry in the diaspora's largest US hub is leaving her post; after a decade overseeing the apostolate in LA, Good Shepherd Sr Mary Christina Sevilla will head home next month to aid relief efforts following a September tropical storm.

Lest anyone needed further proof of the work-ethic of women religious, Sevilla will be replaced by... a team of five.