MANILA - Filipinos in Rome are excitedly awaiting the start of Simbang Gabi this year, as no less than the Pope will lead the celebration in the Vatican City - a first in history.
Pope Francis will officiate Simbang Gabi on December 15 at the St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican City, the first time a pontiff will celebrate Mass in the four years since the Filipino community there has held the midnight advent celebration.
Some 7,500 are expected to attend the Mass, which kicks off the traditional 9-day devotion until Christmas Day, the birth of Jesus Christ.
The rest of the Simbang Gabi Masses will be held at the Basilica di Santa Pudenziana in Rome.
The Filipino community in Rome has been busy preparing, for one holding auditions for the grand choir that will sing at the Mass.
Marivic Matira, a long-time member choir member in her community who was among 100 who turned up for the tryouts, said it would be her first time to sing at the Vatican, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church.
She said being there at the Mass is important for her as no less than the Pope would officiate.
"Isang magandang regalo sa'kin ito ng Diyos kung sakaling makasama ako rito sa simbang gabi coro,” she said.
(It would be a great gift from God if I become part of the Simbang Gabi choir.)
Another choir hopeful, Manny Cadawas, could not hide his excitement at the prospect of being able to sing before the Pope.
"Siyempre excited. Siyempre napakahalaga po nun kasi minsan lang sa buhay na magkaroon ng panahon, na pagkakataon na makakanta sa Vatican, matagal ko nang hinahangad 'yun eh,” he said.
(Of course, [I'm] excited. Of course it's important because it's rare to have a chance to sing at the Vatican, that has long been my goal.)
Fr. Ricky Gente of the Sentro Filipino Chaplaincy in Rome made the announcement on the Pope's role in the Simbang Gabi this year via social media more than a month ago, following a meeting with the Pope on the sidelines of a gathering on the world day of migrants and refugees in September.
In his post, Gente said Pope Francis could never forget how Filipinos called him Lolo Kiko, a term of endearment the Philippine faithful had called him during his visit to the country in January 2015.
Millions in the predominantly Catholic country had gathered for the papal visit that year.
"Sariwang-sariwa pa rin sa kanyang alaala ang mainit natin na pagtanggap sa kanya sa kanyang pagbisita sa Pilipinas," Gente said.
(He could still recall how warmly the Filipinos welcomed him when he visited the Philippines.)
He said the Pope even shared how it seemed the Filipinos never slept while he was visiting and stayed around, cheering and serenading him day and night.
- Report from Jackie de Vega, ABS-CBN News