ORLANDO | As a high school seminarian living in the Philippines, Father Glenn Lopez credited Santo Niño, the image of the child Jesus dressed as a king, with helping him remain steadfast on the path toward his vocation.
“After high school, my mother and I attended Mass at the Basilica del Santo Niño in Cebu, where Santo Niño originated,” said Father Lopez, parochial vicar at Most Precious Blood Catholic Church in Oviedo. “She dedicated me to Santo Niño, praying for me to become a priest. After the Mass, my mother had a Cebu prayer dancer pray for me by name in the native language. This could very well have been the moment of grace for me in my vocation.”
On Jan. 29, Father Lopez joined other Filipino priests along with roughly 800 laity for the 17th Diocesan Annual Eucharistic Celebration for the feast day of Santo Niño. Bishop John Noonan of Orlando celebrated Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, with Father Peter Puntal, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Wildwood, as the homilist.
“The beatitudes first show us the childlike faith of Santo Niño – be humble of heart and poor in spirit,” Father Puntal said. “Children know how to have fun – they play, they laugh…it is easy for them to forgive. We were created for light. We must learn to have fun, to have joy when Jesus said, ‘don’t worry about tomorrow.’”
In his homily, Father Puntal provided several ways of how to cultivate joy in our lives. First, he advised to start the day off right by thanking the Lord for the gift of life and asking Him to guide us away from negativity. Second, he encouraged spending time with family and friends. Third, he recommended growing our sense of humor. And lastly, he said we gain joy by helping others.
The Mass was followed by Sinulog dancing and a re-enactment of the Spaniards led by Ferdinand Magellan who presented Santo Niño to Queen Juana of the Philippines in 1521. This event marks the beginning of Christianity in the Philippines. It has been said, while holding the image of Santo Niño, the newly baptized and converted Queen Juana danced with joy which led other native Filipinos to follow. This moment is regarded as the first Sinulog, an annual cultural and Catholic festival traditionally held in the Philippines on the third Sunday of every January. It includes dancing to honor Santo Niño.
The sculptural image of Santo Niño looks similar to the Infant Jesus of Prague – both originating from Spain. The original wooden statue of Santo Niño is still intact today, more than 500 years since its gifting to Queen Juana. Pope Francis mentioned the Holy Child as the protector of the Philippines during his visit to Manila in 2015.
“The reverencing of Santo Niño is the oldest of all devotions that we have in the Philippines,” said Father Kenny Aquino, pastor of Divine Mercy Catholic Community in Merritt Island, and liaison to the Filipino Ministry of the Diocese of Orlando. “There is an identity of love for Santo Niño that Filipinos have passed on from one generation to the next. You will see the image of Santo Niño in almost every Filipino home. Santo Niño reminds us that through Jesus we will never be abandoned in our suffering.”
While the feast of Santo Niño is a celebration of Filipino heritage, Father Aquino said it is the reassurance that the Holy Child of Jesus will be a companion to migrants as they journey from home. “Santo Niño is a source of solace and hope. It is a blessing to be with Santo Niño,” he said.
The feast of Santo Niño holds a particularly special place in Father Aquino’s heart. The Jan. 15 feast day, while a moveable feast day, also happens to be Father Aquino’s birthday. “I’ve been very close to the Holy Child of Jesus. In many instances of my life, I find encouragement and affinity to the Holy Child,” he shared.
Tribu Orlando, a group of local Sinulog dancers, first started as a group of 20 Filipino families across the Diocese, coming together to pray a novena ahead of the Sinulog festival. A priest later recommended they open their celebrations and prayer to the larger Catholic community to participate. After the Jan. 29 Santo Niño celebration Mass, Tribu Orlando led several Sinulog dances.
“I love the devotion of Sinulog to Santo Niño,” said Lei Mosqueda, one of the Sinulog dancers and event organizers. “I apply this devotion every day in my life. I always ask Santo Niño to answer my prayers.”
Mila Ecle grew up in Manila and moved to the United States as young woman with her husband who was in the Navy. Event coordinator of the Diocese’s Filipino Ministry, Ecle said, “Santo Niño teaches us that our love to the Lord should be innocent like a child’s. Whatever children have, they are happy.”
By Dana Szigeti, Special to the Florida Catholic, February 02, 2023