Joining Filipino Catholics at a traditional Simbang GabMass before Christmas, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory praised them for their faith and devotion and for helping to shine Christ's light in the world.

“Our  Filipino brothers and sisters use this time of year to prepare their hearts for the coming of Christ,” the archbishop said at the Dec. 23 Simbang Gabi Mass at St. Columba Church in Oxon Hill Maryland, the final Mass in a novena of nine evening Masses held at the church leading up to Christmas.

The archbishop called that tradition “a wonderful legacy and spiritual heritage.” Pope Francis celebrated a Dec. 15 Simbang Gabi Mass for Filipino immigrants in Rome, also praising them for their faith.

The Mass in the suburban Maryland church drew a standing-room congregation of about 600 people, including many families with children, to the parish that has the largest population of Filipino Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington. St. Columba's pastor, Father Gary Villanueva, who is a native of the Philippines, estimates that about two-thirds of  the members of that parish of 1,400 households have roots in that country. 

A woman embraces young girl during the sign of peace at the Dec. 23 Simbang Gabi Mass at St. Columba Church in Oxon Hill, Maryland. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The worshippers at the Mass sang the Our Father and some other prayers in Tagalog, a language of the Philippines.

In his homily, Archbishop Gregory noted that the star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi was a prelude to the birth of Christ, the light of the world who illumines all of God's creation. The evening Masses of Simbang Gabi, he said, remind the faithful to cast off the darkness of sin as they await and welcome the light of Christ on Christmas.

“I thank our Filipino brothers and sisters for bringing this devotional custom to this archdiocese and to the Church of the United States... In truth, we all need to discover the light of Christ,” Archbishop Gregory said.

Each Mass in the novena of nine Simbang Gabi Masses has a theme, and as that evening's Mass began, a lector encouraged the people there to “reflect on God's faithfulness to His promises. God never lets anybody down.” He added that the Lord's faithfulness reminded people that they are called to keep their promises to God, “no matter what the cost.”

After the Mass, Venia Cruz, the president of the Filipino Ministry of St. Columba Church that sponsored the Simbang Gabi novena there, noted that the Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia.

“We brought this (tradition) when we came here from the Philippines, when we immigrated,” she said, describing the custom as “nine days of preparation of the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Cruz said she was “elated” by the number of families attending the Masses. “That means our tradition has spread and is still spreading. It important that we would be closer to God and give glory to God,” she said, adding, “All of this is for the kingdom of God.”

In addition to Father Villanueva, the concelebrants at the Mass include Father Pawel Sass, the pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Washington, D.C., and Father Roland Agrisola, a priest of the Diocese of Lismore, Australia, who is doing graduate studies at The Catholic University of America.

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, at left, was the main celebrant at the Simbang Gabi Mass on Dec. 23 at St. Columba Church in Oxon Hill, Maryland. The concelebrants at the Mass included Father Gary Villanueva, center, St. Columba's pastor, and Father Pawel Sass, the pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Washington, D.C. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Father Villanueva noted that several other parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington offer individual Simbang Gabi Masses for the Filipino Catholics in their communities, but the novena of Masses at St. Columba typically draw Philippines immigrants and their families from throughout the area. 

“This is the mother of Simbang Gabi” in this area, the priest said of his church's celebration, adding that he was happy  that they were continuing the tradition and “sharing it with the next generation of Filipino Americans.” 

The priest said people typically come to the Masses asking for God's intercession and thanking Him for the blessings in their lives. The goal, he said, is to “make them closer to our Lord.”

Choir members sing during the Dec. 23 Simbang Gabi Mass at St. Columba Church. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

A joyful reception followed that final Mass of the Simbang Gabi novena, and included a band playing rock music and Christmas songs. The guests enjoyed traditional Filipino food, including pancit (rice noodles); tamales with chicken, sausage, eggs and chickpeas; dinuguan (a pork stew); and chocolate pudding and rice cakes.

Among those attending the Simbang Gabi Mass and reception were Deacon Robert Villanueva and his wife Gliceria, who met at St. Columba Church, were married there in 1978 and raised their two children there, sending them to the parish school.

“Going to Simbang Gabi gives so much hope to every single Filipino,” said Gliceria Villanueva, who was born in the Philippines. Noting that Simbang means “Mass” and Gabi means “night” in their native language, she remembers waking up as a child at 3 in the morning and joining her family at those Masses at 5 a.m.

“In the Philippines, we go to church in the night and come out in the light,” she said.

Her husband, who is of Filipino descent but was raised in Rhode Island, said, “We have a lot of first generation Filipinos. It (this devotion) is a way of reaching back home.”

He also noted that Simbang Gabi offers a time of celebration for the Filipino Catholic community, a point echoed by his wife who said the gathering strengthens the faith of the participants. “We believe in the God who unites us,” she said.

And Deacon Villanueva said the nine evening Masses point to the true meaning of the season.

“It is a sacrifice. They could easily be out there shopping, but instead every night, they're here worshipping God together,” he said.

Gerry Gonzales and his wife Lianne attended the closing Mass of the Simbang Gabi at St. Columba Church with their four daughters. The couple met as singers in the parish choir and were married in the church in 2006, and at the Simbang Gabi Mass, they again sang in the choir together, as their oldest daughter Leila, a seventh grader at St. Columba School, was an altar server at the Mass celebrated by the archbishop.

“I grew up in the Philippines,” said Lianne Gonzales. “This is an important Filipino tradition that I want to bring to my kids. I really want them to know the importance of Christmas. It's not about shopping or commercial things. It's about the birth of Christ.”

People pray during the Simbang Gabi Mass at St. Columba Church in Oxon Hill. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)