By Deacon Neil Daculan
The year 2021 is very significant for us Filipinos, especially among the Catholics. It is our 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, with Cebu as the seat of Christian faith in the Philippines. It all started in 1521 with the baptism of Rajah Humabon but most specially his wife, Hara Humamay, who in the account written by Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian chronicler of the expedition, wrote about this event:
“…she (Hara Humamay) was overcome with contrition and asked for baptism amid her tears. Later she asked us to give her the little Child Jesus to keep in place of her idols, and she went.”
According to the Cebuano historian, Resil Mojares in his book “the Feast of the Santo Niño: An Introduction to the History of a Cebuano Devotion,” it was Ferdinand Magellan himself who gave the hara the image of the Child, “telling her to keep it in place of her idols, for it was in the memory of the Son of God.”
The Holy Child stayed with us through the years and for the first time in 500 years, the Santo Niño de Cebu has reached for the first time in the parish of St. Agatha (Cranbourne) in the Diocese of Sale.
The novena mass started on 8 January 2021 and with COVID restrictions, around 200 faithful are allowed inside the Church. The novena mass has also been livestreamed via the YouTube account of the parish. The Santo Niño has gone ‘viral’ in a way that the Cebuano devotee families have craved for His presence in this part of the diocese.
Book to attend Novena Masses, and Sto Nino Fiesta Mass on the parish website: https://www.stagathas.org.au
Book to attend Sinulog festivities at St Agatha’s School Ground (up to 500 people capacity) after Santo Nino Fiesta Mass: https://www.trybooking.com/events/landing?eid=703647
Looking back, the beginnings of this devotion in the parish started with another novena mass the Filipinos are very familiar with: the Simbang Gabi, a series of dawn masses in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After each dawn mass, people would usually gather for breakfast at the church hall and fellowship happened. For the last three years, there is always a whisper hovering around this gathering about the Señor Santo Niño. It seemed divine to think that the novena mass in honour of the Mother of God in December would blissfully flow into another novena mass in honour of the Son of God, the Holy Child Señor Santo Niño. The December-January connection of the Holy Family is tied together, to celebrate the season of Mary’s Magnificat to the season of the revelation of the Son of God. It is always to Jesus through Mary, as most Catholics would attest.
The Sinulog dance is one of the most fascinating parts of the celebration. It is pagan in origin because the Sugbuanons (Cebuanos) knew no other way to worship, but to dance. The dance-as-worship which is Sinulog, was a way of expressing thanksgiving to the Señor for the many blessings He bestowed on the Cebuanos, particularly abundant rain when it was needed most by the farmers at that time. Later on it evolved to more than just the material thanksgiving: it truly became Catholic when the dance forms part of the liturgy as an offering. Pedro Chirino wrote in 1600s about the dance (as Mojares noted in his book):
“…they move their empty hands in harmony with feet, now slowly, now rapidly, now they move forward, now they step back; now they are on fire, now they are calm; now they come together, now they move apart. Everything is with graceful decency.”
The word Sinulog is currently interpreted to mean “wave-like” in reference to the back-and-forth movement of the dance, like a sulog, a native Cebuano word which means “water current.” The St. Agatha Sinulog dancers epitomise this description, as so are dancers in other parishes.
It is truly a blessing to have celebrated this Catholic tradition of the novena masses for the Santo Niño. Faith has gone a long way since 1521. The Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu has extended its periphery by way of the devotees.
It is 2021 and we are celebrating it in another country we call home: our beloved Australia. Pope Francis’s prophetic tone rings true when he admonished the Filipinos in his homily during the Simbang Gabi 2019 in Rome to “continue to be smugglers of faith.”