Filipinos honor the Simbang Gabi tradition in Penang
Below is original article as written by the writer. It appears in the Herald of 15 Feb. 2012 (but was edited). It was also published in Malaysiakini’s Komunitikini and UCAN (Union Catholic Asian News)
Simbang Gabi is a Filipino Christmas tradition, which consists of 9-days dawn Masses. Bells, lights and lanterns will welcome the people to the Masses and after the Masses, they will usually tucked in to some traditional food.
In Penang, instead of dawn, the Masses were held in the evening at 2030 hours.
In 2009, Simbang Gabi was first held at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Penang, but in 2010 and this year, it was held at the Church of the Our Lady Sorrows (part of City Parish).
Fr Dominic Santhiyagu, the parish priest of City Parish, explained how Simbang Gabi was bought to Penang.
“One of our local youth when she was in Philippine was totally enthralled by the Simbang Gabi celebration in Philippine, that when she returned to Penang, she suggested the idea of having it in Penang. She first approached the parish priest of the Church of the Immaculate Conception and they had the Simbang Gabi for the first time there. When I found out about it, since there is a large Filipino community in my parish, I put forward the idea to them, whether they would like to organize it.”
Without hesitation, the Filipino Catholic Community of Penang (FCCP) took up the offer as they were delighted to be able to follow their home country tradition although they were away from home.
Thus, beginning from 16 Dec and until 24 Dec, the Filipino Community will be attending Mass everyday, and after Mass, they will gather at the hall to enjoy their own Filipino food.
Last year, the Simbang Gabi, focused on ‘Parol’ (the Star of Christmas), where there was a competition among the Filipinos to make beautiful lanterns symbolising the ‘parol’. These lanterns were then hung inside the church during Christmas day.
This year, as the theme was on evangelization through liturgy, they focused on
Liturgical dance, which will be performed on the last day of the 9-days novena (24 Dec). On the last day, the tradition of enacting the ‘Panuluyan’ will also be performed in place of the homily during the Mass. This is a short play taken from the Gospel of Luke 2:7, where the Mary and Joseph, searched for a place to stay for the birth of Jesus Christ.
Fr Dominic was very happy to see the Filipinos able to keep to their Simbang Gabi tradition and said that although they are far away from home, this will give them a taste of home away from home.
“Wherever they are, we, as the Catholic Church, shows that we care for them.” said Fr Dominic. “Therefore, I gave the Filipinos here a free reign to organize this divine tradition. To me, this is a beautiful tradition, as I note the sacrifices they made – waking up so early and preparing food. This tradition will create the need for more prayers and hence they will be more spiritually filled during Christmas. The Filipino here are in a foreign land and they have made a lot of sacrifices too.”
The priest who celebrated the Mass for the 9 days is Filipino priest, Fr Conegundo Garganta, who was specially invited by Fr Dominic to share the Simbang Gabi with the Filipinos.
Fr Conegundo is the Director for the National Secretariat for Youth Apostolate and the Executive Secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Youth (ECY) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
On the first day of the Simbang Gabi Mass (about 100 Filipinos in attendance), Fr Conegundo welcome the Filipinos to the beginning of the 9 days journey of faith. He said that coming together for the Simbang Gabi should not only be sacramental or emotional but as they prepare to welcome Jesus, they should take this opportunity to spread his Good News.
“The Simbang Gabi, being held in Penang, will help the Filipinos in Penang to minimize their home-sicknesses as this tradition means a lot to them.” said Fr Conegundo, “It is meaningful for them because, being away from home, this is the family they have in Penang, as they gathered together. They become a special group of people who embrace a new meaning in family – family in Christ for one another.”
Fr Conegundo was grateful to Fr Dominic for allowing this tradition to carry on in his parish. This, he said, shows that the Malayisan Church is open to welcoming strangers. He said that Fr Dominic had shown spiritual wisdom in a beautiful way to unite the Filipinos in Penang.
Jelorie S. Peroja, who came to Penang for study, 11 months ago was glad to be able to participate in Simbang Gabi, although away from home.
“This year’s Simbang Gabi in Penang was a witness to the joy and the spirit of unity that could be felt among those who gathered to celebrate one of the most-loved Filipino traditions.” She said. “For me, it paved the way for a deeper longing yet a joyful preparation for His coming. The liturgy, the songs and the presence of fellow Filipinos brought back tears into my eyes because they reminded me of home.”
Echoing what Fr Conegundo had said about Simbang Gabi bringing all Filipino in Penang as one family, Hermie Camba, who had been in Penang for over 10 years, and is the president of the Pinoy Support Group (PSG) had this to say.
“Simbang Gabi in Penang brings me the spirit of unity, compassion & joyfullness to our community. It reminds me of our culture and traditions on how we prepare ourselves spiritually for Christmas. I have seen the unity among the Filipinos during Simbang Gabi from the mass to fellowship I feel like we are one big family.”
Ronald R. Masangkay.(2 years in Penang)
“I feel happy everytime I attend the Simbang Gabi, I feel like celebrating the seasons
as if I’m in Philippines.” Said Ronald R. Masangkay, who came to Penang two years ago. “It lessen the feeling of loneliness. I also like the fellowship after the mass where we can eat all the Filipino food.”
The Catholic Filipino Community in Penang is very strong and there are two groups – the Pinoy Support Group (PSG) and the Filipino Catholic Community, Penang (FCCP).
The PSG was started more than ten years ago and its role focus mainly on the welfare of the Filipino migrant workers. They handle the labor legalities of Filipino in Penang and deal with the Philippine Embassy.
Seeing the need to cater to the Filipino’s spiritual needs, those in the PSG decided to start the FCCP three years ago.
Frederick Cartojana, 29 years old, a technician in Penang, is the present chairperson of FCCP.
“FCCP strives to build up the Filipino’s faith.” he said. “We get as many people as possible to be involved in the liturgy during Sunday Mass. We organize formation or events that get them to be in touch with the Word of God, living and acting on it.”
Frederick said he felt it was a great honor that the parish priest allowed them to organize the Simbang Gabi in his parish.
“I am over-whelmed that we, the Filipinos are able to bring up our tradition here in Penang, Malaysia, through the Simbang Gabi.” He said “I am happy to serve FCCP community here. I’ve been here for 4 years now and I enjoyed working and staying here. I started to join FCCP 3 years ago, because one of my friend asked me to be a guitarist for their choir here at the parish. I love to play guitar and serve God at the same time. That was how I started to belong to this group, which has now, I see, become part of the community of the parish.”
The existence of the Filipino in the parish had gone through four parish priests during the years and all of them were very supportive of PSG/FCCP. FCCP also sits in the parish pastoral council.
– By Lucia Lai
(To see some Christmas decorations at OLS church, click here)