It's 2:45am. Time to get up and go. First thing to do is to make sure the consecrated brothers, our choir leaders, are up and ready to go in a few minutes to the village.
We meet the sisters at the van. They are usually laughing with big smiles at 3am and making comments on what a beautiful morning it is. We start off in the van for a tiny remote village about 20 minutes from our base camp in Putiao, Pilar, Sorsogon.
On the way there we pray and get orientation for the day's Mass. I share with the ecclesial team my homily so we can have a consistency in the message that we present to the people, The brothers catechize the children, singing the Mass hymns and parts they will sing during the Mass. The sisters catechize the people. They are an energetic young Filipina, who is the vocation directress for SOLT here in Asia, a not-so young, yet just as energetic and full of poetic expressions sister, and a sister from Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile I hear confessions in the corner a half hour before Mass starts.
We arrive to packed little chapel in middle of vast expanse of coconut trees and rice fields. Most of the crowd are children and teenagers, who typically crowd the front and sides, immediately outside the chapel, which usually has bars instead of windows.
They are usually quite surprised and begin to laugh when they see an American priest speaking their local dialect, which only 10 million people of the Bicol region speak. I give the opening orientation of what will happen before the Mass, then we begin our ecclesial team evangelization.
An ecclesial team is a term from my religious community, SOLT, which means, priests, consecrated persons, and laity working together to bring people into communion with God. We all work at the same goal, sharing the gift of our specific vocation, gender, culture, and personality to make a complementary, unified yet harmonized voice to proclaim the Gospel.
In the Philippines, the Dawn Mass, Aguinaldo Mass, or Simbang Gabi, is a novena of masses of Our Lady to prepare for Christmas. It is traditionally held for 9 days before Christmas. Pope Urban IV gave a special indulgence to those who celebrate this novena, which has its origins in 6th century Spanish piety, and was exported to the Spanish colonies. In Mexico, the form you see is the Posadas, or in Venezuela the same.
What an amazing thing to see droves of teenagers at 3:30 in the early morning on the way to Mass! There is quite a bit of enthusiasm among the young people, which is why it is very easy to tap into their youth and joy and help them encounter God in a real and tangible way, that they become the authentic representatives to their generation of the new and very alive face of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. We usually have a few vocation inquiries after each Mass.
Afterward we either hurry off to another Mass at 5am or stop and have some coffee with noodles or bread for breakfast.
As I am not just a priest, but a formator of the seminarians, or future priests, that make up our ecclesial team, I usually ask them questions about things that happen during our catechesis and Mass, seeing if they can understand whatever God has desired to show us in these events and graces, doing whatever teaching I can so that one day they may be good priests and team leaders in the New Evangelization. I beg you to please pray heartily for them and for me.
Our ecclesial team is marked with a very intense joy, and it seems that 95% of the conversation is that holy humor, that builds up, and graces those with whom it comes in contact.
May Our Lady's joy prepare us all for the coming of Jesus Christ, to be born into our hearts in a new and powerful way this Christmas.