SAN JUAN — The brassy sound of mariachi trumpets and the voices of Catholics from across the Rio Grande Valley filled the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle – National Shrine just after midnight Wednesday as thousands continued a tradition hundreds of years old.
Misa de Gallo, or ‘The Rooster’s Mass’, has been a staple in Catholic countries for generations, Father Jorge Gomez said.
“I guess it’s called that because that’s when roosters begin to crow, at midnight,” Gomez said. “It goes back to centuries ago, when they celebrated midnight Mass to celebrate Christmas.”
The Misa de Gallo at midnight and a children’s Christmas Mass held earlier in the evening were both packed. Gomez said a full house for the mass is not uncommon locally or globally.
“In my hometown in Jalisco it is in the main square, the plaza, because there is not enough space in the church for all the people that attend the Misa de Gallo,” he said. “Here at the Basilica, thank God, we have enough space to accommodate probably 3,000 people inside. This is my third Christmas at the basilica, and every year has been full; standing room only.”
Many at the Mass were dressed in their Sunday best, facing an altar fronted with hundreds of poinsettias. Christmas lights twinkled on trees setup in the chancel, light sparkling off of golden chalices and candlesticks and the dangling metal buttons hanging from the mariachi’s uniforms.
Gomez said the Mass and the many people that make a point of attending it consistently move him.
“It always, always gives me hope,” he said. “I read all over that…the attendance to mass is declining, that people are not attending Mass as much as they would in the past. That’s probably true for the parishes, but at the basilica I think we’re getting more people than in the past.”
To Gomez, the Mass is an important opportunity to focus the congregation on what he says is the paramount meaning of Christmastime.
“One of the things I think we’re losing in our culture is that Christmas is about the birth of Christ, it’s not about gifts; it’s not about the family; no, Christmas is about the birth of Christ,” he said. “Yes, we get together as a family to celebrate, but it’s not about the gifts, it’s not about the presents: Christmas is about the birth of Christ.”
Gomez says parishioners increasingly have fewer options when it comes to celebrating an authentic Misa de Gallo.
“The basilica is a special place for families to come for Misa de Gallo. Even though they go to their regular parishes throughout the year, they come to the basilica, because we are one of the few parishes that still have Mass at midnight,” he said. “A lot of the parishes have moved the Mass to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. Some as early as 9 p.m. Here at the basilica we still do it at twelve midnight.”
Keeping the tradition alive, Gomez says, is a priority.
“We want to keep that tradition. It’s a way the people can keep their tradition of midnight Mass if they can not have it in their parish,” he said. “It’s important for generations to come, because people have had that tradition here for many years.”