HOUSTON — All Catholics in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston are being encouraged to join Filipino Catholics in embracing a special jubilee indulgence period celebrating the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines.

It is an opportunity to grow in faith, said Father Edmund Eduarte, vicar for the more than 50,000 Filipino Catholics in the archdiocese.

After receiving a request from Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the Vatican issued a decree designating four Catholic churches in the greater Houston area as pilgrim churches beginning Jan. 26.

Until April 26, Catholics can visit any of these four parishes and obtain a plenary indulgence.

“This celebration is a recognition of the Filipino faith,” said Eduarte, who also is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Houston’s East End. “Pope Francis once noted that wherever Filipinos go, they bring with them the joy of their Catholic faith.”

“This celebration means a great deal to us,” he added, “and reminds us that the gift that was given to us 500 years ago is so special.”

The beginning of Christianity in the Philippines dates to 1521 when explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed there and a priest with his expedition baptized about 800 people April 14, 1521.

The four pilgrim churches are the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in downtown Houston, Prince of Peace Catholic Church in northwest Houston, St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Katy just west of Houston and Notre Dame Catholic Church in the Alief section of Houston.

All of them are welcoming pilgrims with a series of special Masses and events.

To receive a plenary indulgence, which is a remission of the temporal punishment due for one’s sins, Catholics must visit the designated churches, recite special prayers, go to confession and receive Communion.

Retired Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza opened the jubilee when he celebrated a Mass Sept. 25 at Notre Dame, where a letter from DiNardo was shared with the Filipino community.

“This local church continues to be enlivened by the deep faith and religious customs of the Filipino Catholic community throughout Galveston-Houston,” the cardinal said in the letter.

“By establishing this jubilee, it is my hope that all the faithful will grow in their awareness of the importance of missionary zeal for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that they will intensify their prayers and support for the work of our Catholic missions,” he said.

“What makes the Filipino faith unique is the joy,” Eduarte said, noting how Filipinos can have a special way of dealing with life, including devastating hurricanes and storms, but still have a smile.

“Despite the destruction, they’re still smiling,” he told the Texas Catholic Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper. “They’re grateful that they are alive. That gratitude makes them hold onto God’s promise because they know that God will never fail them, that God will always be close to them.”

With the Philippines as the only predominantly Catholic nation in Asia, Eduarte said he hopes Filipino Catholics will remain a visible sign of faith both there and in Texas, even if it just means feeling a sense of home.

Archdiocesan Filipino ministry officials said there are 22 Filipino priests and six Filipino deacons that serve many parishes and hospital chaplaincies in Galveston-Houston.

Like Eduarte, Sister Ricca Dimalibot, a physician and medical director for the CHRISTUS Point of Light Clinic in Dickinson, Texas, is one of the more than 2 million Filipinos who have migrated to the U.S., which is now home to the largest number of Filipinos living overseas.

Dimalibot, who is a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, spent the first half of her life living in the Philippines.

She pointed to the culmination Mass of Simbang Gabi, celebrated by DiNardo Dec. 23 at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Katy, as “proof of how Catholicism is interwoven in every aspect of the lives of Filipinos.”

Simbang Gabi is a devotional, nine-day series of Masses attended by Filipino Catholics in anticipation of Christmas.

The final Mass with the cardinal was a reflection of her early years in the Philippines, said Dimalibot, who also is a general councilor for her religious congregation.

“When I was in medical school, I walked to church with my classmates,” she said, noting how the whole neighborhood would be decorated with traditional Filipino Christmas lights and that after Mass, Filipino breakfast foods were available as a post-Mass meal. “The whole experience of worship, community and fellowship helped form my faith life now.”

“It was touching for me to sing old Filipino hymns and learn new ones during Mass,” she said. “Several dialects were spoken, and it felt like home hearing them again.”

For her, the final Simbang Gabi Mass was important because of the 500th anniversary, but it also was a chance to pray for her fellow Filipinos recovering from Typhoon Rai, which killed more than 400 in December.

She also prayed for an end to the pandemic, the effects of which she has seen in person at her clinic.

“Several Filipinos who work in the medical field died during the pandemic. That doesn’t stop Filipinos from traveling abroad for work to help their families,” she said.

Eduarte noted how for many Filipinos, Simbang Gabi and the jubilee are a time of giving thanks to God for the many gifts they have received, to which they respond with faith and service to others. And for many of them, that service overflows into careers in health care, an industry that continues to buckle under the pandemic.

Just seven months into the pandemic, National Nurses United found that nearly one in three U.S. registered nurses who died of COVID-19 were Filipino.

An estimated one in four front-line health care workers is of Filipino descent, despite the fact that Filipinos represent only 1% of the U.S. population, according to a July 2021 JAMA Network report.

Filipino immigrants represent the fourth-largest migrant group in the U.S., after those from Mexico, India and China, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Ramos is a staff writer and designer for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.