Pope Francis holds Communion as he celebrates Mass for the Filipino community on Dec. 15 at the Vatican. (Photo by Tiziana Fabi/AFP)
Pope Francis has called on Filipinos, especially those who are living and working abroad, to "continue to be smugglers of the faith."
He made the call at the end of a traditional "Simbang Gabi" Mass that he celebrated with the Filipino community in Rome on Dec. 15.
The "Simbang Gabi," or night Mass, is a devotional nine-day series of masses celebrated by Filipinos in anticipation of Christmas.
It was the first time in history that a pope officiated a "Simbang Gabi" Mass, although such celebration has been held in the Saint Peter's Basilica four times before.
The pope's remark acknowledged the role of Filipinos, mainly migrant workers, in the spread of the Catholic faith.
He was alluding to how Filipino migrant workers practice their faith even in places where it is dangerous to show their religious affiliation openly.
More than 86 percent of the Philippines' some 80 million people are Catholics.
In his homily, Pope Francis thanked Filipinos for bringing the "Simbang Gabi" devotion to other countries.
He told migrants "who have left your land in search of a better future" that they have a "special mission."
"Your faith should be leaven in the parish communities to which you belong," said the pontiff, adding that Filipinos should increase opportunities for meeting to share their "culture and spiritual wealth."
He said such encounters would also allow Filipinos "to be enriched by the experiences of others."
A study by the Philippine Statistics Authority early this year revealed that almost half of Filipinos have migrated from their place of birth at least once in their lives.
Most of those who left the country went to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia.
Father Ricky Gente, a chaplain to Filipinos in Rome, recalled how the pope described Filipino migrant women as "smugglers of the faith" during the last celebration of the World Day of Migrants.
"Yes, it is true, we carry with us, wherever we go, the torch of faith of the Gospel in the world – the same faith and Gospel that has been transmitted to us," said the Scalabrini missionary priest.
The celebration on Sunday with Pope Francis highlighted the role played by Filipinos in the Church.
Early this month, Pope Francis named Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila the new prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
In his homily, the pope reminded Filipinos to help the "oppressed, the hungry, prisoners, foreigners, orphans and widows ... the inhabitants of the existential peripheries of yesterday and today."
"We must ask the Lord to renew the miracle of Christmas every year, offering ourselves as instruments of his merciful love towards the least and the lowest," he said.