By Reuben Gutierrez

Misa de Gallo. Pabasa. Santacruzan. Sumaiyo rin. Mano Po.

These words and phrases might not mean anything to most people, but they are familiar to Filipinos practicing the Catholic faith. Since our birth, my parents, who were born and raised in the Philippines, have molded my two siblings and me through Catholicism. Sunday Mass was a natural part of our schedule, even when we were babies. Holy days of obligation and various Lenten services were routine and hardly met with complaint.

Three years ago, the Filipino Apostolate of South Jersey was formed under the guidance of Filipino priests in the Diocese of Camden as part of the diocesan ethnic ministry. The apostolate brings together in faith most of the Filipino American families in Camden and Gloucester Counties by supporting and organizing religious events and services in the Filipino tradition. (The diocese serves about 1,000 Filipino American families in six New Jersey counties.)

One of only two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia, the Philippines has unique religious customs and traditions now being observed in South Jersey. My attendance at those events and services has given me a better understanding of these customs and how Filipinos blend religion into their family lives.

My parents' practices and our upbringing in the faith - attending many Masses and other religious programs - at first seemed excessive compared with the religious practices of my friends and classmates. I later learned they were common among Filipino families.

One of the staples of the Filipino Apostolate is the monthly Filipino Mass, when families trek to one of 16 parishes in the Camden-Gloucester area. The parishes take turns hosting the celebration, which includes Mass and, afterward, fellowship where scrumptious Filipino food prepared by the host parish is shared.

The Mass is celebrated in Tagalog, the native language, but is in the same format as English Mass, making it easy to follow. Hearing Mass in Tagalog can sound strange for someone not versed in the language. Lately, with the help of a Mass program in Tagalog and English, I've learned how to respond with "sumaiyo rin" - "and also with you."

The language barrier can sometimes get embarrassing, especially when the priest tells a Filipino joke in his homily. There will be laughs and stifled giggles from many of the adults, while the children and teens are left confused. In the end, however, I am grateful to see my parents enjoy the Mass they grew up with after years of attending the traditional English-spoken Mass.

In addition to the monthly Masses, the Filipino Apostolate supports the local observance of some religious festivities commonly observed in the Philippines at various times of the year. While the apostolate did not initially organize these events, it takes part in them. Foremost of these celebrations are the Misa de Gallo, a nine-day novena/Mass observed at Christmas; the Pabasa during Lent (the Passion of Christ read in a melodious chant in Tagalog); and the Santacruzan, a May festival celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary.

These traditions are so important to the Filipino community. I'm happy not only to witness them, but participate in them.

Another Filipino tradition I hope I'll be able to practice in my later years is a special sign of respect between a child and an elder. The older person tells a child, "Kaawaan ka nang Dios!" ("God bless you"), while the child holds the elder's hand, bows, and touches the back of the hand with his forehead, saying, "Mano Po!" (a respectful greeting to an elder).

To be born here and yet able to observe and practice traditions from another part of the world is truly a blessing. It is something I cherish and wish to pass down to succeeding generations of Filipino Americans.

Reuben Gutierrez will be a junior this fall at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he is studying food science. He lives and writes in Sicklerville.