Christmas Abroad, Simbang Gabi and Four Years As A Priest

Christmas, as the saying goes, is right around the corner, and yet from the view outside of my window, four stories above the street in Calle Monasterio de Oliva here in Pamplona, there is nothing that belies the fact that the Christmas season is fast approaching. Aside from the Christmas lights shining merrily on the windows of the Chinese shops (yes, there are Chinese merchants even here in Spain), and a few posters showing the Christ Child in a few apartment windows—which could be another equivalent to “A practicing Catholic lives here” sign—there is nothing else that shows the fact that it’s nearly Christmas. Well, at least if you look out of my window. There are people bustling by, but no sign of the Christmas cheer whatsoever. You’ll have to go to the city center in order to see Christmas lights on the streets; Pamplona could not qualify as a serious rival to Brgy. Luntad of Palo, Leyte in terms of Christmas lights.
By no means is this my first Christmas outside of the Philippines; having done my theological formation at the Colegio Eclesiastico Internacional Bidasoa—an international seminary located in this same province of Navarra (Spain)—I’ve spent four Christmases away from my family. This however, would be my first Christmas abroad as a priest.

I believe that I speak for everyone when I say that December and the Christmas season have a special meaning for us Filipino priests. For many of us, the start of the Advent season means preparing and conducting recollections, looking for sponsors and Mass celebrants for the Misas de Gallo to be celebrated in our parishes and chapels, bracing ourselves for this traditional pre-Christmas dawn novena, and preparing for the gifts we would have to make to relatives and friends, as well as parishioners, not to mention the invitations to parties to this or that group in our respective communities. In short, for a Filipino priest, December is a busy time, comparable only to the season of Lent, and this priestly activity merely increases as the month progresses.

I was ordained a priest the day before the traditional Aguinaldo Masses were about to start. On December 16, in parishes and chapels all over the country, millions of Filipino Catholics would make the effort to rise very early in the morning—some very, very early—in order to take part in this unique tradition, only done in the Philippines, and in every place where a Filipino community may gather. This novena of grace was designed to be an immediate preparation for Christmas. In my parish in Palo, Leyte we hold this novena to Nuestra Señora de Belen (Our Lady of Bethlehem, or of the Manger), to implore for graces. I have lived these days to the full since the first moment; in fact, the Misas de Gallo were precisely the first moments of my priesthood. I would rise very early in the morning, excited to celebrate the Mass with the faithful wherever my schedule led me that morning. The Mass would be celebrated with white vestments, since it was already the Christmas liturgy that was being celebrated. This being so, there was much solemnity; the Gloria was intoned and the songs were festive. There were flowers in the altar, and the muted atmosphere of Advent gave way to the joy of Christmas. Incense was employed with liberality, something which delighted the sacristans, who did their office with the graveness any cardinal of the Roman curia would envy. The congregation may struggle to be awake during the sermon, for which the priest would have to make the homily more meaningful and even entertaining. The churches would be filled to excess (which led a priest to remark that he hoped that people would take the adage “every day is Christmas” seriously, so that the churches may be filled thus every ordinary Sunday) and the congregation would spill out into the plaza. One would see people both young and old, but the majority of the youth is really noticeable. After the Mass, people would usually return to their homes; many—especially the youth—would chose to remain together with their friends, gathered in the plaza or in the parish. Sometimes the parishes—through the generosity of the donors for that day—would prepare hot food and drinks for anybody who would care to partake of them. The priest would usually remain with the faithful, chatting, greeting people, eating with them.

For three years I had lived these days intensely and with relish. I do so because of the mark it has left in my ministry and in my priesthood. I have never taken lightly the fact that the first Mass I technically celebrated after my ordination was an Aguinaldo Mass, having been ordained on the 15th of December, 2007. I was ordained on the days that the Filipino religiosity had marked in preparation for Christmas. Perhaps that accounts for the “Incarnational” aspect that I have always thought essential to priestly spirituality: the ordained priesthood is but a continuation of the Incarnation of the Word of God. This is not something that I have invented myself, nor is it the fruit of my personal reflection, but one that I have learned from the treasury of the Catholic Faith. True, the priest is not a man for himself; in the words of Blessed John Paul II, he is to be a man for others. He is not to occupied with himself, but that he must tend toward the Christ-event, the Word of God made flesh, and lead others to enter into communion with this same Word. He is called to reflect the very same face of Christ, living and lovable, so that seeing him, the faithful may not look at the priest, but rather rest their gaze upon Jesus Christ. If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, who dwelt among us, with his life the priest must make his own an incarnation of this very same life, reflecting the splendor of this light which shines in the darkness and which the darkness had not overcome (cfr. Jn 1:5). Of this darkness the priest is conscious; he could see it in himself. That is why all throughout his priestly life he must always wage war against it ever defeating him, knowing that one could only battle the darkness with the light. This struggle against his own darkness he must live not only for his sake, but also thinking about his flock, who look to him for guidance and example as they struggle with their own darkness. The priest is far from perfect, we know, but who cares? Nobody could fault anyone for looking up at priests seeking guidance and looking for a model to imitate in the struggle for holiness: for the Church he is a city set on a hill, and a light placed upon a lampstand, whether he likes it or not. Nobody could blame the faithful for their disappointment and sadness when a priest falls low because of his sins. The priest is the one who must show the faithful the splendor of the coming dawn. I find it significant that the Simbang Gabi, over which the priest presides in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ the Head, as Christ himself, starts in darkness and ends with the first rays of dawn. He leads the faithful entrusted to his care towards the light, light that he does not manufacture on his own. When this light comes, he who had served as the light not hidden under the bushel basket but rather placed upon a stand, must give way to the Day that knows no end, Jesus Christ himself.

These considerations I make, as I celebrate four years of the gift that I had not merited, nor would ever be worthy to hold—the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, and as we prepare ourselves to celebrate once more the traditional Filipino Christmas that is one of its kind, celebrated at home, in the Philippines, where the heart is, and abroad. Wherever there is a Filipino, no matter where he may be found, this Paskong Pinoy is always celebrated. I for my part, continue to celebrate this Filipino Christmas. My present situation would never deter me from celebrating a tradition so dear to my priesthood as the Simbang Gabi, though I may be celebrating it in broad daylight, in the privacy and silence of the sacristy, because of how much it has taught me about this priesthood for which gratefully and humbly I would sing to God eternally in profound gratitude: misericordias tuas Domine in aeternam cantabo!

About Ivo Velasquez

a priest of the Archdiocese of Palo, Leyte (Philippines), currently taking up licentiate studies in Theological History at the University of Navarra (Spain)