BalikBayani République | Tony Alabastro
One carol is sung once, on Christmas Day mass, in Church of Our Lady of Assumption (COLA), where an 8pm Simbang Gabi replaces nine-day, 5am Misa de Gallo (Rooster’s Mass) during pandemic times.
Three to four thousand attend Sunday mass in Brunei’s COLA, probably the world’s smallest and youngest church. 80 percent are migrants from Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Europe.
Mass-goers pre-register, wear masks, get temperature checks, scan BruHealth QR code, fill-in details, and get socially-distanced seat as-signments.
“Even with COVID, we are safe here. Few cases of contagion, thanks to early border closure,” says Cornelius Cardinal Sim, Borneo’s first cardinal in over 400 years of Christianity.
“Filipino migrants are people of faith. When they are in crisis or in trouble, they come to church,” says US-educated Sim, Brunei’s new Prince of Church.
“Pope Francis understands that the church exists in little places where there is not much publicity but where faith is much alive, in the periphery of the periphery,” says the first Franciscan University of Steubenville’s priestly discernment program graduate to be ordained priest.
“My new role is to contribute to create peace, harmony and goodwill with citizens of different persuasions and religions.”
Brunei’s first locally ordained priest shepherds the faithful in its over 90-year-old church.
“I am required to participate in Indianapolis 500 having only a Fiat 500,” says Cardinal Sim.
“The challenge of Brunei church is to provide a home away from home for the Catholic community largely migrant, which it helps with feeding programs and financially in times of trouble, illness or death.
“It’s difficult for migrants to find work. The best way is to find them a home, offer hospitality.”
COLA hosts an annual Migrants party for workers and labourers of different religions and nationalities.
In pandemic times, a Virtual Migrants Party on theme: Give Light to the World will be livestreaming on Cardinal Cornelius Sim’s YouTube channel on December 25, 2020 from 7:30 to 9:30 pm.
To be lucky draw-eligible, subscribe to Cardinal Sim’s Youtube channel, and attend one Simbang Gabi.
Before COVID, COLA serves free food to reach out: Indian flat bread (roti) with curry or dahl (chickpea) dips, Chinese sweet and sour pork, mixed vegetables, Filipino adobo, lumpia, pansit, and Malay nasi lemak (rice steamed in coconut milk, fried chicken, peanuts, dilis, boiled egg, sambal hot relish.)
Thai or Nepali lucky draw winners win electronic appliances they gift their Pinay girlfriends. Children receive presents from churchyard Santa Claus.
Before COVID, one Christmas was when Philippine Embassy officers and staff interacted with Filipino inmates, and greeted Brunei prison officers in Maraburong and Jerudong prisons.
“Prisoners look forward to the visits. Indescribable to know they are always remembered specially during Christmas,” reminisces then Ambassador Virginia H. Benavides.
Her double-story modern contemporary Ang Bahay, official residence in Rimba (jungle) suburb, had hosted Christmas midnight dinner for runa-way maids, workers facing employers’ problems, illegal recruitment and human trafficking victims, and other Bahay Kalinga tenants.