Filipino Catholics find comfort and connection in Simbang Gabi novena tradition

Simbang Gabi. For many Filipino Catholics, the words are a reminder of their home, their traditions and their culture. But most importantly, Simbang Gabi is a call to evangelize.

“First and foremost, it’s a way of encouraging devotion and bringing people to the Church,” said Rev. Nilo Macapinlac, a Filipino priest and pastor to St. Stephen’s Parish in the central Alberta community of Olds.  “We bring that anticipation of Christ’s birth into the present moment and into the next generation.”

Simbang Gabi (“Night Mass” in English) is a series of nine masses celebrated by Filipino Catholics across the world, from Dec. 15 to 23. This year Pope Francis will make history and celebrate a Simbang Gabi Mass on Dec. 15 at St. Peter’s Basilica. It is the first time a pontiff will publicly celebrate the Filipino tradition.

The tradition, which dates back nearly 500 years, promotes devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and prepares Catholics for Christmas.

Rev. Nilo Macapinlac

“It give us a deeper spirituality amid the business of life,” said Macapinlac. “In a way it is counter-cultural. It sends a very strong message that, no matter our other duties, we make these nine days in honour of our Blessed Mother.

“The greatest model for us, particularly in Advent, is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She pondered and treasured God’s Word in her heart and that Word was made flesh through her womb. In the sanctuary of our own hearts we can treasure God’s word, especially during this time of year.”

Hoping to reignite the tradition among Edmonton’s Filipino community, Macapinlac helped initiate the first Simbang Gabi celebration at St. Theresa’s Parish in 2006.

Since then, the novena has spread to parishes across the Edmonton Archdiocese – including Annunciation, St. John the Evangelist, and Corpus Christi in Edmonton, St. Augustine in Ponoka, and St. Anthony in Lloydminster.

The churches are filled with parishioners and choirs. Often a different priest celebrates each Mass, and Scripture readings and songs are sung in Tagalog, a national language of the Philippines. Food and fellowship follows.

Filipino Catholics in the Edmonton Archdiocese, and around the world, attend nine Simbang Gabi Masses.

In parishes like Corpus Christi and St. Theresa, as many as 400 to 600 people attend each Mass.

“In many ways those nine days are a test  ̶  to be faithful to the Lord and to prove ourselves with perseverance and patience in waiting for Christ’s birth,” said Macapinlac.

The Simbang Gabi novena traces its origins to the Spanish missionaries who first brought Catholicism to the Philippines in the 16th century. 2021 marks the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines.

At the time, the Philippines was mostly an agricultural and farming country. Before the farmers began their daily labour, the missionaries would wake them with church bells and offer Mass at sunrise.

Deacon Gem Mella

“The Spaniards would try to attract people, especially the farmers, who would be out in the field early in the morning working,” said Deacon Gem Mella, who helps organize the Simbang Gabi masses at Corpus Christi.

“So in anticipation for Christmas, right at the crack of dawn before they could even go to the fields, the Church bells would ring and the Spaniards would wake the people to celebrate these nine masses in honour of the Virgin Mary.”

Mella can still recall the importance of Simbang Gabi as a child growing up in the capitol, Manila.

“I can still remember the preaching, the people coming together, people lining up for confessions throughout the entire Mass – it really hits you,” he said. “That’s ultimately why people were inspired to bring it here. It’s a tool of evangelization. In that special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, you basically renew people.”

By the 19th century, Simbang Gabi had become such a widespread celebration that many churches saw thousands attend. Eventually, the masses were so crowded that an additional evening Mass was added to the tradition.

A different Filipino choir performs at each of the nine Simbang Gabi Masses.Courtesy of Deacon Gem Mella

In North America, Simbang Gabi Masses are typically celebrated in the evening, but the early morning tradition continues in the Philippines.

St. Theresa’s parishioner Justin Guanlao has lived in Canada since 1993, but he can still remember the days when his parents would wake him up at 3 a.m in the Philippines.

“Back then Simbang Gabi was difficult if you lacked devotion,” he said with a laugh. “For a kid, to have to wake up at that time and not really understanding the meaning of these Masses, you end up sleeping half the time as your parents are praying.”

“But my recollection is that people always looked forward to this time  ̶  always. Because people were doing something they felt deep within them was a great sacrifice and a great religious devotion.”

Those cherished childhood memories are common for many. Father Macapinlac remembers waking at sunrise to see Catholics lighting lanterns and carrying them on their walk to the church. It always reminded him of the Magi following the star to Bethlehem.

In Canada, Simbang Gabi has also become a celebration of Filipino heritage. At Corpus Christi, fellowship is provided after Masses with an immense array of Filipino foods such as lumpia egg rolls, puto rice cakes and other traditional delicacies.

“Without that, it’s not Simbang Gabi,” said Mella. “As a young boy, I always remember looking forward to the food after Mass.”

Food and fellowship are offered after each Simbang Gabi Mass, as seen here at Corpus Christi parish in 2018.Courtesy of Deacon Gem Mella

From the Mass to the meals, the novena is a chance for Filipinos to experience home away from home.

“It helps connect them to the wider Filipino community and feel a sense of belonging,” Guanlao said.

“Since I was a child, I saw that people tend to become closer to one another through Simbang Gabi. They’re all making that same sacrifice and celebration and it still happens now. People meet, they start talking about home, and there’s this sense of carrying on what’s been done for so many decades.

“And now, many non-Filipino parishioners have started making these Simbang Gabi Masses a part of their Christmas tradition too.”

As Simbang Gabi continues to grow in the Edmonton Archdiocese and across the world, Macapinlac hopes a devout faith will grow alongside it.

“Many of us now live in countries like Canada, but as Filipinos we are always called to share what we have received,” said Macapinlac. “This is a form of gratitude and thanksgiving for us. We believe that our Church is not man-made, that God is journeying with us in every step. It is something we cherish and long to share.

“Our culture and traditions never die, and that’s why we have this gift of celebration.”