Christ child is focus of Filipino celebration

The figure of Santo Niño de Cebu, the Holy Child, was raised high to shouts of praise, “Viva! Pit Señor!,” (Live! Hail Lord!) at an annual Filipino Mass and celebration Jan. 21 at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha.
The tradition in Omaha goes back 38 years, but the Christ child has been elevated in the hearts of Filipino Catholics for centuries.
In 1521 explorer Ferdinand Magellan reached the Philippines and gave a statue of the child Jesus as a baptismal gift to a future queen. Christianity, and devotion to the Christ child in particular, grew and became deeply entrenched in the hearts of Filipinos over the centuries, with many miracles attributed to the Santo Niño image, housed in a basilica chapel in the Philippine province of Cebu.
 Filipino-Americans from Omaha and other locations in Nebraska, Iowa and as far away as Texas helped fill the cathedral for the 11:30 a.m. Sunday Mass. More than 1,000 people were at the cathedral and about 500 people packed a parish hall for a Sinulog Fiesta afterward. Sinulog is the name of the dance ritual that is part of the celebration.
The Mass began and ended with processions that included a Knights of Columbus honor guard, Sinulog dancers in bright red and gold, children dressed as angels, men bearing a float with a Santo Niño statue and people carrying their own figures of the child Jesus. They chanted “Viva! Pit Señor!” to a beat pounded out by drummers.
“I really looked forward to today,” Father Michael Grewe, pastor and rector of St. Cecilia Parish, told the congregation in his homily.
Spanish explorers and missionaries “found fertile ground for faith,” in the Philippines, Father Grewe said. The people accepted the Gospel and became “one of the strongest Catholic nations.”
Over those nearly 500 years, graces and blessings have flowed from Christ to the people of the Philippines, the pastor said. But he stressed that parents, grandparents and other adults now must do their part to pass on the faith to younger generations.
“We’ve been blessed, and we want the next generation to be blessed, too,” Father Grewe said. “We are the ones who have to tell the story of Jesus Christ. We need to let them know who the Lord Jesus Christ is.”
“Today he’s calling us. May we be great fishers of men.”
After holy Communion, a children’s choir sang a hymn of praise to Santo Niño. And children came forward to be blessed, along with the Santo Niño statues that worshipers brought from home and placed on the altar rail.
The procession that concluded Mass went out the main doors of the cathedral and swung around to a parish center where the Sinulog Fiesta was held. The chants and dancing continued there as people filed in. The afternoon program included singing American and Filipino national anthems, a banquet of Filipino foods, groups entertaining with song and dance and a raffle with prizes.    
Columban Father John Comiskey of Bellevue concelebrated the Mass. He is spiritual director of the Cofradia del Santo Niño de Cebu Greater Omaha Chapter, which organized the Mass and celebration.
Throughout the year, the chapter supports religious congregations in Omaha, Lincoln, Sioux City, Iowa, and the Philippines, as well the Pontificio Collegio Filippino in Rome and a seminary in Cebu. They also host priests and religious brothers and sisters visiting the Omaha area on mission. Funds to support those works are raised during the celebration of the child Jesus.
Tess Leiting, vice president of the Omaha Cofradia’s executive committee, said she celebrated the feast day growing up in the Philippines and has been part of the Omaha celebration since shortly after she arrived in town, about 20 years ago.
Devotion to Santo Niño is important to Filipinos and “uplifts our spirits,” said Leiting, a member of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha. And the annual Omaha celebration – including the Mass, Sinulog Fiesta and novena prayers – brings the Filipino spirit here, she said.
Ben Gonzalez, president of the Omaha Cofradia and a member of St. Cecilia Parish, said the Santo Niño image portrays Jesus not only as a child but also as king, depicted with a cape and crown, holding the world in his protective care in his left hand and raising his right hand in a sign of peace.
“The devotion is about the child Jesus being born to the world and saving us from sin,” Gonzalez said. “We are always children, with God as our Father.”
It’s important to remember, he said, that God’s work of salvation “all started with a child.”
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