The Archdiocese of Melbourne is one of the most culturally diverse in the country, blessed with so many different ethnicities and groups who call Australia home and contribute to the life of our local communities. This includes millions of Filipinos, one of Australia’s largest migrant groups who are well known for their deeply devotional practice of Catholicism.

This year marks 500 years since Christianity arrived in the Philippines, and Filipinos continue to influence and share the gift of faith wherever they are. Earlier this year, locals celebrated Sinulog or Fiesta Señor, an annual festival celebrating the people’s devotion to the Santo Niño (the child Jesus).

Another distinctly Filipino tradition is that of Simbang Gabi, one of the many gatherings that Filipinos look forward to during the Season of Advent. During Simbang Gabi, people attend Mass at dawn in the nine days leading up to Christmas. The novena practice traces its origins to the early days of Christianity in the Philippines when farmers and fishermen would attend Mass on their way to work.

The observance of this spiritual and cultural tradition has continued across the centuries and has found its way to parishes throughout Australia. Before the pandemic, the Archdiocese of Melbourne had 11 parishes celebrating Simbang Gabi, with some parishes now making it an annual feature of their calendar.

According to Monsignor Joselito Cerna Asis, Episcopal Vicar for Migrants and Refugees, the practice of Simbang Gabi has evolved and become less exclusive to Filipinos, with parishioners of all backgrounds now attending. Monsignor Joselito is also Chaplain to the Filipino community of Melbourne and partners with various parishes around the Archdiocese to offer Simbang Gabi. This year he is also hosting Masses at St Brigid’s Church in North Fitzroy, with the Filipino Chaplaincy Choir singing traditional hymns in both English and Filipino.

Melbourne Catholic Kemp Vinson is a father of two from Melbourne’s west and a member of the small yet growing community called Feast Melbourne West. Kemp sees the devotion of Simbang Gabi as a gift that Filipinos can offer to the Catholic Church in Australia and the world. ‘It introduces a new way of expressing excitement for the coming of Jesus by waking up earlier than usual to worship God during Mass,’ Kemp said.

The preparations, the choir practices, the festive ambiance, and the fellowship after Simbang Gabi contribute to a Filipino way of making the Church be more active in Melbourne.’

Kemp says the Filipino Chaplaincy and several parishes around the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Diocese of Sale are preparing once again to welcome people to a “COVID-safe Simbang Gabi”.

‘May this tradition of Simbang Gabi remind us of our rich Filipino Catholic heritage and at the same time inspire us to bring more souls to Christ. Perhaps, this is one of the many ways that Filipinos can spread the gift of faith (or perhaps its revival) in the land down under.’