Pentecost Sunday 2012 happened to fall on the last Sunday of May. For that reason I found myself officiating on that day at a Filipino Santacruzan at Saint Barnabas parish in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
I help out regularly with the weekday Mass schedule at Saint Barnabas, and last February I received a call from the parish office. The call was a request to officiate a Sunday afternoon Mass for a Filipino celebration on the last Sunday in May. I willingly accepted, and was put in touch with a Filipino couple who were organizing the event.
The couple visited me to brief me on their plans, and explained that the celebration they were organizing was called the SantaCruzan. They were pleasantly surprised when I told them that not only was I familiar with the celebration, but that I had spent several years as a young missionary in the Philippines many years ago.
The SantaCruzan really celebrates two different practices carried out in the Philippines during the month of May. The first is the Flores de Mayo (the Flowers of May) which consists of devotions every evening in May to honor the Virgin Mary by offering flowers and prayers before her image. The second devotion being celebrated is in honor of the cross on which Christ was crucified, believed to have been located by Queen Helena, mother of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who halted the persecution of Christians at the beginning of the 4th century.
The SantaCruzan is really a complicated event, and it is to the credit of the Filipinos how they masterfully weave the two together in one celebration. The three main elements in the celebration are a procession, the Mass, and a banquet.
The procession was due to leave from the community hall under the parish church starting at 2 p.m. I arrived just before 2 o’clock to find the parish hall filled with people in, what looked to the inexperienced eye, a state of chaos. Filipinos from all over New England and further afield were smiling and enjoying one another as they stood or sat around tables chatting animatedly. Loudspeakers were playing instrumental and vocal Filipino music. The lady who had briefed me about the event was there with her microphone, trying to organize the procession against the competition from the loudspeakers and the animated conversations.
It looked like a hopeless task, but with that infinite patience in which Filipino women excel, slowly but surely she coaxed order out of chaos. In a surprisingly short time, the procession was ready to move.
The procession was led by a cross-bearer, followed by two flag bearers, carrying the American flag and the flag of the Philippines. After them came the Knights of Columbus, Couples for Christ, and the Legion of Mary. They were followed by about 30 angels, all in white, average age about 4.
Then came the queens with their escorts. First was a young woman dressed in a long dress, carrying a triangular flag. She is the Banner Queen, representing the arrival of Christianity to the Philippines. After her came another young woman in a long dress, the Moor Queen representing the Filipinos who embraced the religion of Islam, which arrived in the Southern Philippines two centuries before Christianity, through traders from the Persian Gulf .
The last queen in the procession was a young woman chosen for her beauty to represent the Empress Helena. She carried a small wooden cross to indicate that she found the True Cross in the Holy Land, and brought it to Constantinople. Before her walked her escort, a young boy wearing a crown and representing her son the Roman Emperor Constantine.
At the end of the procession, in the position of honor, came the flower-decked image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, carried shoulder-high by four men wearing black pants and the long-sleeved barong tagalog, the traditional dress of Filipino men.
After the image came the priest and all the members of the faithful. The procession wound its way slowly through the Church grounds in the warm sunshine, while the crowd prayed the Rosary, led by the Hermanas, the women who had sponsored the daily devotions to Our Lady during the month of May.
After the procession entered the Church the image of the Virgin was placed before the altar, where it was blessed by the priest, and crowned by the Empress Helena. This was followed by Mass celebrated in English, with hymns and prayers in Spanish and Tagalog.
After Mass the Virgin was carried in procession to the community hall, where she presided at a happy and lively banquet of mouth-watering Filipino and American food.
I commended the organizers for their working together to show their young people how the Faith was handed on in the Filipino tradition. The Santacruzan is a prayerful history lesson. The young Filipinos, by following the religious tradition of their elders, are keeping in touch with their cultural roots, while at the same time enriching the life of the Church in the country of their adoption.