MABALACAT, Pampanga--The pastorella has always held the people of Mabalacat under its charm.
A set of Latin hymns sung during the nine-day Christmas Masses, the pastorella has not been heard in many Pampanga towns for 40 years after Vatican II prescribed the use of local languages in religious rites.
But the tradition has lived on in Mabalacat, specifically at the Our Lady of Divine Grace Parish, according to Robby Tantingco, a resident and executive director of the Holy Angel University's Center of Kapampangan Studies.
The pastorella is actually a local term for the Misa de Pastores in honor of the shepherds that kept vigil during the birth of Jesus Christ, said Arwin Paul Lingat, a member of the parish's liturgy committee who also works as a researcher for the center.
"The songs were eventually collectively named as such by residents," he said.
In the 4:30 a.m. Mass on Monday, the repertoire included the Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy), Gloria (Glory to God in the Highest), Credo (Apostle's Creed), Sanctus (Holy) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). The hymns were in Latin, except for Kyrie, which was in Greek.
The rest of the songs were in Filipino and in English.
In a phone interview, Pampanga Bishop Pablo Virgilio David said the Archdiocese of San Fernando "tolerates the Latin hymns for as long as the songs for the entrance, communion and recessional are in Filipino, Kapampangan or English [so they could be sung by the congregation]."
"It is basically the charm of the songs that makes the people listen to them," David said.
Members of the Our Lady of Divine Grace parish choir have been rehearsing daily for the Masses. An organist, two violinists, a flutist and a choir master accompany the 20 singers, aged 15 to 38. This shows that the tradition has been passed on to the younger generations.
Their training for singing the Latin hymns starts early, said Sheena Len Policarpio, 20. She was 9 years old when she joined the chorale and was taught the hymns when she was 12.
"On Christmas Eve, all of our three choirs [the two others are the Mabalacat parish choir and Early Morning choir] will be combined for the pastorella. We would all be more than 50 [singers] by then," said Policarpio.
The pastorella exists to this day as part of the town's oral tradition, Tantingco said.
Its roots stemmed from several possibilities. It could have been introduced by the Augustinian Recoletos, the native clergy or by the musical composers among lay people.
Pablo Palma, a composer from Bacolor town, composed the Stabat Mater in four versions. The current musical sheets in Mabalacat bear no name of their composers, however.
"What is known is that Alejandro de Leon of Angeles City, our previous choir master, rearranged the compositions in 1972 [to provide more instrumentations and give the choir some rest in between singing]," said Bonifacio Gaña, 38, a choir member for 21 years.
It also persisted because elder musicians were not selfish.
These veteran musicians--known only by their nicknames like Apung (Elder) Pacing, Totang, Dodie, Sendong and Carting--trained second-liners, including the current organist, Carla Castro. The current choir master is Dr. Reggie Layug.
The archdiocese has no document either on the pastorella's beginnings or in which towns it is currently practiced, said Fr. Oliver Yalung, head of the liturgy commission.
Professor Lino Dizon of the Center for Tarlaqueño Studies, which has been writing on the missions of the Recoletos (calced or shod friars) in Mabalacat and Tarlac's Bamban and Concepcion towns, has no available archival documents on the role of that religious order in the pastorella.
Bamboo organ creator
Their penchant for music is indicated through Fr. Diego Cera who, some months after his assignment here in 1797, created the world-famous bamboo organ in Las Piñas.
It cannot also be said, though, that the pastorella was mainly a legacy of the Recoletos, who served this northern Pampanga town from 1725 to 1898.
"Years ago, the pastorella was sung in Augustinian (discalced or barefoot missionaries) territories, like San Fernando and Bacolor," Tantingco said.
The pastorella has also been a tradition in the western town of Sta. Rita because the old singers are still around, according to Recy Pineda, one of the musical directors of the ArtiSta. Rita.
"It never stopped being sung by the old tiples (singers) and now with commentators and lectors," she said.
Old residents in Betis keep the pastorella alive on selected occasions.
Keeping the faithful awake
What was certain was that Latin, the language used in Masses before 1965, was the medium through which the hymns evolved, it was learned.
To Tantingco, the aim was clear: "The friars possibly used it as a technique to keep the faithful awake during dawn Masses."
Tantingco said the pastorella used to be done in "very operatic" style. "It seemed like you were watching an Italian opera," he said.
What makes Mabalacat's pastorella unique is that it is preceded by the lubenas (a corruption of the word novena). These are hand-held lanterns accompanying the processions of the patron saints of villages during simbang bengi (night Masses).
"So the Catholics here double their sleep deprivation by staying up late for the lubenas and waking up early for the dawn Mass. I think it is flesh mortification in preparation for the Feast of Nativity," said Tantingco.
The parish priest, Ignacio Carlos, wants to add a new feature to the pastorella. "Aside from hearing the Latin hymns, I want our parishioners to appreciate these through dances," he said.
His stint has seen the church in a real Christmas mood. Lanterns made of papel de japon or capiz festooned the church interiors. An advent wreath and a manger grace both sides of the altar.
Carmelita Garcia-Flake, 74, regards herself as the lone surviving tiple in her batch.
Coming from the United States, she sat at the choir loft on Monday and observed: "They do not sing the pastorella with much passion."
Her batch, she said, learned the pastorella from Fr. Victor Serrano, a native of Mabalacat.
Music composer Cris Cadiang, a former priest, said based on talk he had with members of various choral groups, the pastorella is "alive" in Mabalacat, Barangay Balibago in Angeles City and Sta. Rita.
Violins and cello
To him, that means that out of the more than 90 parishes in Pampanga, only three continue with the pastorella.
Garcia-Flake said that in older times, violins, cello, accordion and tambourine accompanied the pastorella.
The musicians then, she said, belonged to prominent clans in the town.