Federation of Tagalog Diocesan Liturgical Commissions
Re: Simbang Gabi
Theologically, the liturgical year is the celebration of the memory of Christ’s
paschal mystery every week or Sunday and once a year during the Easter Triduum. It
unfolds the mystery of Christ from his incarnation to his second coming. The liturgical
constitution clearly defines as the theological content of the liturgical year the saving
work of Christ, the mystery of redemption, the whole paschal mystery of Christ, which
the Church celebrates every eighth day and in the course of the liturgical year, and
proclaims during the feasts of the BVM and the saints.1 From these conciliar texts we
may say that the whole paschal mystery, which enfolds the whole mystery of Christ
from his incarnation to Pentecost and his second coming, permeates the entire
liturgical year. Thus, the paschal mystery of Christ serves as the axis around which
revolves the liturgical year. All liturgical feasts, inclusive of those commemorating the
various aspects of Christ’s life as Christmas and Easter, center on this same mystery.
Our Filipino celebrations of the liturgical year reflect forms of popular religiosity
that have arisen and been accepted throughout the ages. They are a sure sign of the
extent to which the faith has taken root in the hearts of our people and of its influence
on the daily lives of the faithful. Regarded as a treasure of the Church, our popular
pious exercises allow our people to express our faith and our relationship with God
and Providence, with Our Lady and the Saints, with neighbors, with the dead, with
creation and strengthens membership of the Church.2 They are a testimony of the
faith of the simple of heart, underlining the one or the other accent without pretending
to embrace the whole content of the Christian faith. Our popular religiosity is a living
reality in and of the Church; its source is the constant presence of the Spirit in
ecclesial communities; its reference point, the mystery of Christ; its object, the glory of
God and the salvation of man; and its historical moment, the joyous encounter of the
work of evangelization and culture.3 The Church, for her part, does “respect and foster
the qualities and talents of the various races and nations. Anything in these people’s
way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error, she studies
with sympathy, and, if possible, preserves intact. She sometimes even admits such
things into the liturgy itself, provided they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit”.4
If, on the one hand, popular religiosity must not take the place of liturgy, liturgy, on
the other hand, does not eliminate the other forms of expressing the faith in Christ the
Savior.5 Likewise, it is important to recall that popular religiosity finds its natural
crowning in liturgical celebration, toward which it has to be ideally oriented, even if
habitually it does not flow into it.6
1 Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC] 102, 104, 106, and 107.
2 Cf. Pontifical Council for Culture, Per una Pastorale de la Cultura (Citta Vaticana, 1999) 28.
3 Cf. John Paul II, Homily given at the Shrine of the Virgin Mary of Zapopan (1979) 2.
4 Cf. SC 37.
5 Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular
Piety and the Liturgy. Principles and Guidelines. Intervento del Card. Jorge A. Medina Estevez,
6 Cf. John Paul II’s Message on 21 September 2001 at the Plenary Meeting of the Congregation
for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, nos. 4-5.
Our [Catholic] religious culture began with the coming of the Spanish missionaries.
The Philippines as a former colony of Spain shares and preserves faithfully much of its
colonizers’ religious traditions, putting on local color and character. For example, we
have what the Spaniards called “Misa de Aguinaldo”, which we would call “Simbang
Gabi” culminating with the “Panuluyan” held immediately before the Christmas
Midnight Mass. This form of religiosity is still very much alive in our midst nowadays.
Whenever the “-ber” months of the year set in, for us Christmas is so close and for
some it has in fact come. That is why everywhere you will hear Christmas carols being
played and the Christmas spirit dominating the air. Everyone, not only children, begin
to flock to malls and shopping centers to buy Christmas decors and ornaments to
adorn their houses; these include Christmas trees, star-shaped lanterns (“parol”) and
cribs (“belen”). The spirit is very much in contrast with the Advent liturgy, which,
though its mood is one of joyful expectation, yet calls for restraint in the use of
“Gloria”, musical instruments, ornamentations; the use of purple vestment reminds us
also of exercising some restraints in our liturgical celebrations.
Every year, from December 16 to 24, parish churches and barangay chapels teem
with people from all walks of life for a pious exercise that has become so popular
among Filipino Catholics all over the world.7 This form of popular piety is known as
“Misa de Aguinaldo”, also called “Simbang Gabi”.8 It is a novena of Masses in honor of
the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Expectant Mother of God, and in preparation for the
commemoration of the birth of our Savior.9 This popular religious custom is
considered among the oldest and the most venerable religious traditions in our
country. In contrast to the sober character of the Advent liturgy, these Masses are
festive in character and are said with special solemnity: the “Gloria” and, before, also
“Credo” as well as Christmas carols, are sung even on the 3rd and 4th Sundays of
Advent (but only during the Misa de Aguinaldo), white vestments are used even on
Sunday, the church and sanctuary are festively decorated, and approved musical
instruments are played.10 Nowadays, if any of these days fall on Sunday, the Mass
7 For others, the novena of Masses is from December 15 to 23 due to the curfew enforced
during Martial Law by the Marcos Government; the evening onward of December 24 is the
celebration of Christmas. The period from December 15 to 23 continues to be retained by some
pastors until today in order to respond to and accommodate the people’s clamor for Misa de
Aguinaldo in their barangay chapels.
8 Both in Spain and in the Philippines, these Masses “de Aguinaldo” were celebrated in the
early hours of the morning. As early as the 17th century, they are said to be celebrated “summo
mane” (= very early in the morning), “ad auroram” (= at dawn), and “antequam dies illuxerit” (=
before daybreak). They are celebrated, both on weekdays and Sundays, and, like solemnities,
festive and solemn elements like “Gloria” and “Credo” are sung.
9 The liturgy frequently celebrates the Blessed Virgin Mary in an exemplary way during Advent
to recall the women of the Old Testament who prefigured her, to exalt her faith ad humility to
submit to God’s will and salvific plan, and to highlight her presence in the events of grace
preceding the birth of Jesus.
10 The Alcina report tells us that even Christmas carols were sung at the “Misa de Aguinaldo” in
the Visayas and perhaps even in Manila where he had stayed for a total of four years during
his ministry in the Philippines. Cf. C. Kobak, OFM and P. Fernandez, “Alcina’s Report on the
Celebration of Feast in 17th Century Samar and Leyte” in Philippiniana Sacra, XVI, 46
(January-April, 1981), 134-137; also C. Kobak, “The Great Samar Leyte Bisayan Missionary of
the 17th Century” in Philippiniana Sacra, XIII, 39 (September-December 1978). In collaboration
with Pablo Fernandez, OP, and Lucio Gutierrez, OP, Cantius Kobak, OFM, published in its
formularies and readings are those of Sunday.11 The intention for the celebration of
the “Misa de Aguinaldo” is: “pro constantia Indorum in fide et pro religionis
conservatione in his partibus, quae causa gravissima sane et pubblica est; quippe
maxima est ratio quae pro Religione militat”.12 It is to be noted that, for our people, the
celebration of the nativity of our Lord commences with these dawn Masses from
December 16 onward.
From the historical perspective, the First Plenary Council of the Philippines, in 1953,
applied for a papal indult under the following conditions: “On the nine days preceding
the Nativity of our Lord, i.e., from December 16 to 24, the solemn votive Mass Rorate
Coeli Desuper13 is sung especially in parish and convent churches, but only once a day
with great solemnity and with a big attendance of the faithful”.14 With the promulgation
of the 1960 Code of Rubrics, the Philippine Hierarchy, under its president Archbishop
Julio Rosales of Cebu, wasted no time and decided to elevate in the same year to the
Holy Father a suppliant letter “humbly asking that, in spite of the promulgation of the
new Code of Rubrics, and for as long as the same grave reason, namely the
conservation of the Faith [in the Philippines] continued, the Aguinaldo Masses be
allowed to be sung for nine days preceding the Nativity”.15 On 24 March 1961, the
petition was granted for a period of five years. Until today, the Philippine Church
continues to cling strongly to centuries-old tradition of celebrating the “Aguinaldo
Masses”, with undiminished attendance and festive joy, for the same reasons adduced
in ancient times, but with some changes and trends caused by the changing lifestyle
and circumstances in our society. We refer to the time and places of their celebration.
Some Masses are now being celebrated in the evening, and not only in churches and
chapels, but also in malls and commercial centers.
Regarding the propriety of celebrating the “Aguinaldo Masses”, with all its
elements, in the evening and even more than once in a parish church due to the great
original Spanish with parallel English versions in Philippiniana Sacra (1978) a great part of
Alcina’s “Historia de las Islas e Indios de Bisayas…1668”.
11 Today, there is a question as to which formulary are we going to use in celebrating the
“Aguinaldo Masses” on Sundays, beginning with the Saturday Evening Masses. The
Supplement to the Roman Sacramentary says that “If any of these days fall on Sunday, the Mass
formularies and readings are those of Sunday”.
12 Tanslation: “for the perseverance of the natives in the faith and for the preservation of Religion
in this part of the world; certainly a very weighty reason for the advancement of Religion”.
13 The Mass formulary “Rorate Coeli Desuper” actually falls in the Tridentine Missal under the
“Missae de S. Maria in Sabbato, I. Tempore Adventus” which may also be used as “Votive Mass
in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. In the present Missale Romanum, editio typica tertia, it is
fund in the “Commune Beatae Mariae Virginis, II. Tempore Adventus”, which may also be used
as “Votive Mass in honor of Blessed Virgin Mary”.
14 Acta et Decreta Primi Concilii Plenarii Ins. Phil., Manilae, 1953, n. 356; J. Ylla, OP, Indultos y
Privilegios de Filipinas, UST Press, 1940, p. 24. For the rest of the other scheduled Masses
during this period, Advent has to be observed in all its rigor.
The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines did not touch this papal gift or “aguinaldo” in
view of the fact that the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments would
not allow even the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception to take precedence over the Advent
celebration when December 8 falls on a Sunday. The rationale for this is that Advent in its
totality may not be violated, in much the same way as Lent is to be kept integral.
15 Cf. Ibid., pp. 470-471.
magnitude in number and massive attendance of people, let me share with you the
1. In places where the “Misa de Aguinaldo” or “Simbang Gabi” begins on December
15 and is celebrated in the evening, which formulary are we going to use?
Since “Misa de Aguinaldo” or “Simbang Gabi” is a form of Filipino popular
religiosity or popular devotion expressed not in novena of devotional prayers but
in the liturgy, there is no reason why elements (“Gloria”, festive celebration, white
vestment, et al.) of the “Simbang Gabi” may not be availed of. In fact, these “Misas
de Aguinaldo” were tolerated since they were regarded as a popular devotion,
not only in preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s nativity, but also in
honor of the Blessed Mother.
There is only one restriction though: no anticipation of weekday Masses. For
December 15, therefore, the Mass formulary (prayers and readings) proper to the
day is to be used.
2. Could we anticipate the “Aguinaldo Masses” on weekdays?
We do not anticipate any Mass except Masses on Sundays, holy days of
obligation, or solemnities which have their own Vigil Mass and Evening Prayer I.
Therefore, Masses on ordinary days or week days are not anticipated. Hence,
the formulary to be used for December 15 onward is the formulary (i.e., the
texts of the prayers and readings) proper to the day.
3. Does the reason given with regard to the celebration of the “Aguinaldo Masses”
in the Philippines, that is, for the perseverance of the nation in faith and the
preservation of our holy religion in this part of the world, still hold? Is it still
In the affirmative. There is also a school of thought which holds that if these
Masses were celebrated at dawn to allow farmers to participate in these Masses
before they go to work in the fields, there is no reason why the same could not
be applied to people who have to leave their homes early in the morning for
work in the offices, schools, etc.
4. Rubrics regarding “Aguinaldo Masses” at Dawn:
For the Mass formulary, use the Common of the BVM in Advent (“Rorate Coeli
Desuper”), Gloria, Advent Preface II [I], white vestments.
The Supplement to the Roman Sacramentary provides us with the Mass
formulary (liturgical texts), both the texts of the prayers and the Scriptural
readings, for ach day of the “Simbang Gabi”. It likewise says that, at these
Masses, the “Gloria” is sung on the 3rd and 4th Sundays of Advent, white
vestments are used even on Sunday, the church and sanctuary are festively
decorated, and approved musical instruments are played, but only for the
“Aguinaldo Mass” of that day.
The CBCP has also approved to permanently assign to December 16 the
readings for Friday of the Third Week of Advent: Is 56: 1-3, 6-8 and Jn 5: 33-36.
On the other hand, the Ordo says that “in the spirit of the season, one may
lawfully use in these Masses the Weekday Lectionary” (Roman Missal, General
5. Regarding celebrating more than one “Aguinaldo Mass” in a parish church
especially in highly urbanized places (which do not have any other church or
chapels to celebrate the said Mass) due to the magnitude in number of people
attending or participating in the Mass which the church building may not be
able to accommodate, there is no reason why this may not be allowed. It is to be
noted that one of the considerations for the granting (to both Spain and the
Philippines) of the indult to celebrate this Mass is the massive and undiminished
attendance of people.
6. Christmas Liturgies in the Absence of a Priest: One of the impressive expressions
of Filipino Catholic faith is the practice of novena Masses in honor of the
Blessed Virgin Mary (Misa de Aguinaldo, Simbang Gabi, or Aguinaldo Masses)
traditionally held at dawn from December 16 to 24. In order not to deprive the
faithful who live far away from the parish church of the spiritual benefits
derived from the practice of “Simbang Gabi”, the CBCP has found it opportune
and legitimate to introduce, since 1997, “Christmas Liturgies in the Absence of a
Priest”, similar to the “Sunday Assembly in the Absence of a Priest”. This rite is
offered as a guide for the proper observance of such a celebration. It is,
however, understood that the norms issued by the Holy See and the local
Ordinary on the “Sunday Assembly in the Absence of a Priest” apply in this
Christmas liturgy with equal force. Likewise, the Philippine Bishops have also
granted its seal of approval for the faithful to sing the “Gloria” on the Third and
Fourth Sundays of Advent, but only during the “Simbang Gabi” Masses and the
“Christmas Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest”.
7. During the “Simbang Gabi” Masses and “Christmas Liturgies in the Absence of a
Priest” may Christmas carols be sung?
In the affirmative, since for Filipinos Christmas begins not at the Midnight Mass
of December 24, but at the start of the “Simbang Gabi”. The Alcina report
likewise tells us that even Christmas carols were sung at the “Misa de
Aguinaldo” in the Visayas and perhaps even in Manila where he had stayed for
a total of four years during his ministry in the Philippines.
FR, VIRGILIO B. HERNANDEZ
Immaculate Conception Parish