SIMBANG GABI. The interior of the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in Dumaguete City. During the Simbang Gabi nine-day novena masses starting on the night of Dec. 15 and the Misa de Gallo at dawn the following day, only 50-percent of the church capacity is allowed inside as part of Covid-19 quarantine restrictions. (File photo by Judy Flores Partlow)

DUMAGUETE CITY – Owena Davis, 75, putters around the house, preparing a table with a white linen cloth for the altar, with fresh flowers, a crucifix and candles, just a day before the start of the nine-day novena masses at dawn or Misa de Gallo beginning Dec. 16, leading up to Christmas.

In another part of the city, Jackie Flores, 60, does the same, but has only a few hours before the first Simbang Gabi or evening mass for the same nine-day novena that starts at 7 p.m. on Dec. 15.

Both have something in common this year, along with many countless others: they will be attending the Filipino tradition of the Catholic masses that precede the Christmas midnight mass on Dec. 24 via live streaming on social media due to quarantine restrictions amid coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.

“I have always attended and completed the nine-day novena masses for as long as I can remember, except for a few times when I was abroad during Christmas where Simbang Gabi is not practiced in other countries,” said Davis, a devout Catholic.

She said she and her husband, Arthur, would wake up early and get dressed to attend the dawn masses, held usually at 4 a.m. or 4:30 a.m., depending on which church they would go to.

It’s a long-standing tradition handed over to her from her late mother, Obdulia, also a pious Catholic, and with the restrictions set for senior citizens and young people to refrain from attending large gatherings such as masses this year, Owena said she has no choice but to stay home.

Jackie, on the other hand, said she would be missing the in-church masses this time because she has hypertension and would not want to risk exposing herself unnecessarily to other people. This capital city of Negros Oriental has a high infection rate of Covid-19 and many cases are asymptomatic.

“I do understand that the Catholic churches in our diocese are taking the necessary precautionary measures, such as physical distancing with only three persons seated per pew, and requiring the wearing of face masks and observing health protocols, but still, I can’t take that chance because you can never tell,” she said.

Flores works at the city social welfare office here and has chosen over the past several years to attend the evening masses as it is more convenient for a working mom like her than getting up early in the morning.

Her office is just two blocks from the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria and after work at 5 p.m., she would either take a stroll at the boulevard or do a bit of shopping downtown before going to church around 30 to 45 minutes ahead of the mass.

“It was a regular routine, going to the Cathedral early to get a seat because the church is always packed with people for the Simbang gabi masses back,” she said.

Simbang Gabi is the Philippines’ version of the Misa de Gallo or Rooster’s Mass of the Catholic Church, which has evolved over the centuries and celebrated differently in many countries.

Some churches here even offer “painit” or early morning delicacies like “puto” (sticky rice cakes) and “tsokolate” (chocolate drink) after each mass, and churchgoers get to mingle with the congregation, something that Davis says she always looked forward to each year.

It was customary to hold the masses at dawn in centuries past, to allow farmers to attend the religious rite before going out to the fields, but the evening masses were later allowed here for those who worked during the day.

Catholics here believe that their prayer intentions and petitions are answered if they are able to complete the nine days of Simbang Gabi dawn or evening masses.

“I have experienced that so many times in the past. My prayers have been answered, and honestly, these prayers are not just for me or my family, but for other people as well, and I also give thanks to God for His blessings,” Davis said.

Flores also said many of her prayers and petitions were answered, but she shared that Simbang Gabi is also an opportunity to express her gratitude to God for the year that was.

“It helps us to ponder the birth of Christ, our Savior, and makes us thankful for the blessings that we have received,” she said.

To address the concerns of convergence of large crowds for the Simbang Gabi, the Diocese of Dumaguete headed by Bishop Julito Cortes is taking steps to ensure the safety of the parishioners.

At the Cathedral parish, simultaneous masses will be held at different venues at the same time in the morning and in the evening, so attendees can spread out.

The prelate has also asked the parish priests to coordinate with their local Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) in their towns and cities for individual protocols and other guidelines to follow.

Msgr. Julius Perpetuo Heruela, the priest of the St. Nicholas de Tolentino Parish in Dauin, said there will also be Simbang Gabi masses in the “barrios” with bigger chapels, so that people living there no longer need to come down to the town proper.

Heruela appealed to the people to “make a little sacrifice” this year, as 2020 is a unique occurrence with the Covid-19 pandemic having disrupted the lives of so many, “and this is now the new normal, and we have to abide by the rules”.

He said in his parish, there will be a live-streaming of the masses and wide screens outside the church for those who cannot be accommodated inside.

Both Davis and Flores said their number one petition would be for the pandemic to end and that 2021 would be a better and brighter year for the world.

“There is hope. There is always hope and even in these trying times, we look to Jesus, our Savior, whose light continues to shine upon us, and so we must not lose hope,” Davis said.

“I know that God has a message for us during this pandemic. I believe that He wants us to return to Him, and in this dark and uncertain times, it is Jesus who we should focus our eyes on. After all, the message of Christmas is hope, when God gave to us His only Son, and that is hope,” Flores said. (PNA)