Cebu: Nurturing the Latin Mass in Asia’s Christian Cradle

In January 2016, OnePeterFive reported on the Pontifical Mass in the old rite celebrated by Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong at the Asilo dela Medalla Milagrosa Chapel, during the International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) in Cebu City, Philippines. At that time, there was no regular Latin Mass in the Archdiocese of Cebu, the largest archdiocese in Asia. To many in the province, this was their first glimpse into the traditional liturgy. Many did not even know that it was never abrogated. This was reflected in the headlines of our local newspapers stating, “Latin Mass ‘revived’ for a day in Asilo.” 

Cardinal Zen celebrates the traditional Latin Mass during the IEC.

Fast-forward nearly two years later. The celebration of the traditional Latin Mass has gained wider attention, and, currently, there is a regular Sunday Missa Cantata at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish. This would not have been possible without the efforts of lay people devoted to the Mass of the Ages, with the assistance of faithful clerics.

The Archdiocese of Cebu is home to 4.6 million Catholics. It was on this island in March 1521 where Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, sailing under the Spanish flag, first arrived in the Philippines – and with him missionaries who would be the first to preach the Gospel to the Filipinos. The first baptism and the first celebration of the Holy Mass in the country would occur here. Pope St. John Paul II, in his visit to Cebu in 1981, called it the “cradle of Christianity in the Philippines.”

“Finding myself in this important city known as the cradle of Christianity in the Philippines, I want to express my deep joy and profound thanksgiving to the Lord of history. The thought that for 450 years the light of the Gospel has shone with undimmed brightness in this land and on its people is cause for great rejoicing.” –John Paul II, February 1981 [1]

With such a deep history and heritage of Catholicism, it is a big surprise that up until recently, there was no regular traditional Latin Mass celebrated in Cebu. Maybe it is the Filipino culture, which is so quick to respond to changes. After all, the young people here are very up-to-date when it comes to cell phones, social media, and fashion.  Being a flexible bunch, Filipino Catholics, lay and clergy alike, have embraced wholeheartedly the post-conciliar reforms. The ancient rite is extremely hard to come by in these parts, with even the Novus Ordo celebrated ad orientem or in Latin a rarity.

Even after Pope Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum in 2007, access to the traditional Latin Mass was been realized in the archdiocese. The rise of the TLM in Cebu is due in large part to the Cebuano Summorum Pontificum Society (CSPS), which started in 2012 as a schola volunteering in a local parish. The Pontifical Mass of Cardinal Zen during the IEC was a joint venture of that society and the Latin Mass Societies of Manila and Davao City, which had flown here for the congress. Nine months after the IEC, the CSPS would organize another Mass in October 2016, this time at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish. This parish church would become the home for the traditional Mass in Cebu to this day, thanks to the gracious hospitality of its pastor, Most Rev. Dennis Villarojo, who is also the auxiliary bishop of Cebu.

The founder of the CSPS, Elmer Montejo, detailed in a local newspaper interview how the Latin Mass had helped him rediscover his faith, after spending his teenage years just “going through the motions” in church. “But then I fell in love again with God through the Traditional Latin Mass. It brought me back to the Catholic Church that I even look forward to Sundays,” he says.

Unlike Mr. Montejo, who rediscovered Catholicism through the Latin Mass, I was already a consistent Mass-going young adult. On that October night at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, my first experience with the TLM was of initial struggle with learning the flow of the Mass, but it immediately struck me to the core with its silent and prayerful atmosphere.

I had been an altar server for almost ten years in the Novus Ordo, and I had been trained well thanks to our traditional-minded pastor. We had altar rails at our church and used patens. That training was a foretaste of the beauty I would find in the Latin Mass.

As I sat there in the pew at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart’s, I had never experienced a liturgy so reverent yet so simple. I had difficulty catching up with the happenings at the altar, but I could clearly see how Christ-centered the traditional Mass is.

After several months of sporadic Masses at far-flung chapels, the CSPS started holding Sunday Masses at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel, a venue good for about 60 people, on Trinity Sunday. It also found a priest willing to take up the cudgels for the Latin Mass in Monsignor Joseph Tan, the archdiocese’s spokesperson. Msgr. Tan, who was 26 years into his priestly ministry, learned to celebrate the old rite. He said his first Low Mass on that Sunday.


Msgr. Joseph Tan, celebrating Mass for the Solemnity of Christ the King.

Excited by this new development, I brought my brother and a fellow altar server along and joined the CSPS. Now the TLM has become an integral part of our week and our spiritual lives as a whole. The CSPS currently has more than ten members, with sub-groups of schola, altar servers, and associates. Three other priests from the archdiocese have also taken turns celebrating the Sunday Mass. The congregation during the Latin Mass has slowly grown from no more than a dozen people when we began to around 45 to 50 Mass-goers each Sunday. We hope in time that more people will discover the ancient rite and be able to have a truly enriching experience when they worship on Sunday.

It is imperative that here in Cebu, the traditional Latin Mass should be given a prominent place. The 500th year of Catholicism in the Philippines will be commemorated in 2021. The first Filipinos to be baptized were natives of Cebu. The first Mass celebrated on our shores was in the ancient rite. Since Filipinos care so much about history and preserving heritage, then the celebration of Mass according to the old rubrics is part of that conservation effort. I pray that more priests will take the time to learn how to offer this Mass.

My ministry as an altar server found new life assisting at the Latin Mass. It is as if those many years of serving prepared me to discover the priceless treasure of the ancient rite.

One of our patron saints in Cebu is St. Pedro Calungsod, an altar server and catechist who joined the mission to the Marianas Islands in the 17th century. There he would suffer martyrdom along with his companions. As I look up to him as a role model and invoke his intercession, I imagine how much he was blessed by serving at the Latin Mass and receiving our Lord at the Altar. Strengthened by the Eucharist, he was able to face the spears and machetes of his persecutors, and chose to remain at the side of his friend and pastor, Blessed Diego Luis de San Vitores.

St. Pedro Calungsod, ora pro nobis.

[1] Homily of Pope St. John Paul II during the Mass for Families in Cebu City, February 19, 1981.

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