Dear brothers and sisters in Rome and throughout the world, Happy Christmas! I take up the song of the angels who appeared to the shepherds in Bethlehem on the night when Jesus was born. It is a song which unites heaven and earth, giving praise and glory to heaven, and the promise of peace to earth and all its people. Glory to God! Above all else, this is what Christmas bids us to do: give glory to God, for he is good, he is faithful, he is merciful. Today I voice my hope that everyone will come to know the true face of God, the Father who has given us Jesus. My hope is that everyone will feel God’s closeness, live in his presence, love him and adore him. May each of us give glory to God above all by our lives, by lives spent for love of him and of all our brothers and sisters. Peace to mankind! True peace is not a balance of opposing forces. It is not a lovely “façade” which conceals conflicts and divisions. Peace calls for daily commitment, starting from God’s gift, from the grace which he has given us in Jesus Christ. Looking at the Child in the manger, our thoughts turn to those children who are the most vulnerable victims of wars, but we think too of the elderly, to battered women, to the sick… Wars shatter and hurt so many lives! Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fueling hatred and vengeance… We have seen how powerful prayer is!.. Let us never lose the courage of prayer! Grant peace to the Central African Republic, often forgotten and overlooked. Yet you, Lord, forget no one!.. Foster social harmony in South Sudan, where current tensions have already caused numerous victims and are threatening peaceful coexistence in that young state. Prince of Peace, in every place turn hearts aside from violence and inspire them to lay down arms and undertake the path of dialogue. Look upon Nigeria, rent by constant attacks which do not spare the innocent and defenseless. Bless the land where you chose to come into the world, and grant a favourable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Heal the wounds of the beloved country of Iraq, once more struck by frequent acts of violence. Lord of life, protect all who are persecuted for your name. Grant hope and consolation to the displaced and refugees, especially in the Horn of Africa and in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Child of Bethlehem, touch the hearts of all those engaged in human trafficking, that they may realize the gravity of this crime against humanity. Look upon the many children who are kidnapped, wounded and killed in armed conflicts, and all those who are robbed of their childhood and forced to become soldiers. Lord of heaven and earth, look upon our planet, frequently exploited by human greed and rapacity. Help and protect all the victims of natural disasters, especially the beloved people of the Philippines, gravely affected by the recent typhoon. Dear brothers and sisters, today, in this world, in this humanity, is born the Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. Let us pause before the Child of Bethlehem. Let us allow our hearts to be touched, let us allow ourselves to be warmed by the tenderness of God; we need his caress. God is full of love: to him be praise and glory forever! God is peace: let us ask him to help us to be peacemakers each day, in our life, in our families, in our cities and nations, in the whole world. Let us allow ourselves to be moved by God’s goodness. I invoke the Christmas gift of joy and peace upon all: upon children and the elderly, upon young people and families, the poor and the marginalized. May Jesus, who was born for us, console all those afflicted by illness and suffering… Happy Christmas!”
It was December 25, 1914, only 5 months into World War I, German, British, and French soldiers, already sick and tired of the senseless killing, disobeyed their superiors and fraternized with “the enemy” along two-thirds of the Western Front (a crime punishable by death in times of war). German troops held Christmas trees up out of the trenches with signs, “Merry Christmas.” “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Thousands of troops streamed across a no-man’s land strewn with rotting corpses. They sang Christmas carols, exchanged photographs of loved ones back home, shared rations, played football, even roasted some pigs. Soldiers embraced men they had been trying to kill a few short hours before. They agreed to warn each other if the top brass forced them to fire their weapons, and to aim high. A shudder ran through the high command on either side. Here was disaster in the making: soldiers declaring their brotherhood with each other and refusing to fight. Generals on both sides declared this spontaneous peacemaking to be treasonous and subject to court martial. By March 1915 the fraternization movement had been eradicated and the killing machine put back in full operation. By the time of the armistice in 1918, fifteen million would be slaughtered. Not many people have heard the story of the Christmas Truce. On Christmas Day, 1988, a story in the Boston Globe mentioned that a local FM radio host played “Christmas in the Trenches,” a ballad about the Christmas Truce, several times and was startled by the effect. The song became the most requested recording during the holidays in Boston on several FM stations. “Even more startling than the number of requests I get is the reaction to the ballad afterward by callers who hadn’t heard it before,” said the radio host. “They telephone me deeply moved, sometimes in tears, asking, ‘What the hell did I just hear?’ ” You can probably guess why the callers were in tears. The Christmas Truce story goes against most of what we have been taught about people. It gives us a glimpse of the world as we wish it could be and says, “This really happened once.” It reminds us of those thoughts we keep hidden away, out of range of the TV and newspaper stories that tell us how trivial and mean human life is. It is like hearing that our deepest wishes really are true: the world really could be different.
It’s just a small, white envelope stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree. No name, no identification, no inscription. It has peeked through the branches of our tree for the past ten years. It all began because my husband Mike hated Christmas. Oh, not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it – overspending and the frantic running around at the last minute to get a tie for Uncle Harry and the dusting powder for Grandma – the gifts given in desperation because you couldn’t think of anything else. Knowing he felt this way, I decided one year to bypass the usual shirts, sweaters, ties and so forth. I reached for something special just for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way. Our son Kevin, who was 12 that year, was on the wrestling team at the school he attended. Shortly before Christmas, there was a non-league match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. These youngsters, dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together, presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and sparkling new wrestling shoes. As the match began, I was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without headgear, a kind of light helmet designed to protect a wrestler’s ears. It was a luxury the ragtag team obviously could not afford. Well, we ended up walloping them. We took every weight class. Mike, seated beside me, shook his head sadly, “I wish just one of them could have won,” he said. “They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them.” Mike loved kids – all kids. He so enjoyed coaching football, and rugby. That’s when the idea for his present came. That afternoon, I went to a local sporting shop and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes, and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church. On Christmas Eve, I placed a small, white envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done, and that this was his gift from me. Mike’s smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year. And that same bright smile lit up succeeding years. For each Christmas, I followed the tradition – one year sending a group of mentally handicapped youngsters to a football game, another year a donation to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground the week before Christmas, and on and on. The white envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning, and our children – ignoring their new toys – would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents. As the children grew, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but the small, white envelope never lost its allure. The story doesn’t end there. You see, we lost Mike last year due to dreaded cancer. When Christmas rolled around, I was still so wrapped in grief that I barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree. And the next morning, I found it was magically joined by three more. Unbeknownst to the others, each of our three children had for the first time placed a white envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown and someday will expand even further with our grandchildren standing to take down that special envelope. Mike’s spirit, like the Christmas spirit will always be with us.
My grandma taught me everything about Christmas. I was just a kid. I remember tearing across town on my bike to visit her on the day my big sister dropped the bomb: “There is no Santa Claus,” jeered my sister. “Even dummies know that!” My grandma was not the gushy kind, never had been. I fled to her that day because I knew she would be straight with me. I knew Grandma always told the truth, and I knew that the truth always went down a whole lot easier when swallowed with one of her world-famous cinnamon buns. Grandma was home, and the buns were still warm. Between bites, I told her everything. She was ready for me. “No Santa Claus!” she snorted. “Ridiculous! Don’t believe it. That rumour has been going around for years, and it makes me mad, plain mad. Now, put on your coat, and let’s go.” “Go? Go where, Grandma?” I asked. I hadn’t even finished my second cinnamon bun. “Where” turned out to be Kerby’s local shop, the one shop in town that had a little bit of just about everything. As we walked through its doors, Grandma handed me ten pounds. “Take this money,” she said, “and buy something for someone who needs it. I’ll wait for you in the car.” Then she turned and walked out of Kerby’s. I was only eight years old. I’d often gone shopping with my mother, but never had I shopped for anything all by myself. The shop seemed big and crowded, full of people scrambling to finish their Christmas shopping. For a few moments I just stood there, confused, clutching that ten pound note, wondering what to buy, and who on earth to buy it for. I thought of everybody I knew: my family, my friends, my neigh-bours, the people who went to my church. I suddenly thought of Rob Decker. He was a boy with bad breath and messy hair, and he sat right behind me in Mrs. Pollock’s class. Rob Decker didn’t have a coat. I knew that because he never went out for recess during the winter. His mother always wrote a note, telling the teacher that he had a cough; but all we kids knew that Rob Decker didn’t have a cough, and he didn’t have a coat. I fingered the ten pound note with growing excitement. I would buy Rob Decker a coat. I settled on a red corduroy one that had a hood to it. It looked real warm, and he would like that. I didn’t see a price tag, but ten pounds ought to buy anything. I put the coat and my ten pounds on the counter and pushed them toward the lady behind it. She looked at the coat, the money, and me. “Is this a Christmas present for someone?” she asked kindly. “Yes,” I replied shyly. “It’s … for Rob. He’s in my class, and he doesn’t have a coat.” The nice lady smiled at me. I didn’t get any change, but she put the coat in a bag and wished me a Merry Christmas. That evening, Grandma helped me wrap the coat in Christmas paper and ribbons, and write, “To Rob, From Santa Claus” on it … Grandma said that Santa always insisted on secrecy. Then she drove me over to Rob Decker’s house, explaining as we went that I was now and forever officially one of Santa’s helpers. Grandma parked down the street from Rob’s house, and she and I crept noiselessly and hid in the bushes by his front walk. Suddenly, Grandma gave me a nudge. “All right, Santa Claus,” she whispered, “get going.” I took a deep breath, dashed for his front door, threw the present down on his step, pounded his doorbell twice and flew back to the safety of the bushes and Grandma. Together we waited breathlessly in the darkness for the front door to open. Finally it did, and there stood Rob. He looked down, looked around, picked up his present, took it inside and closed the door. Forty years haven’t dimmed the thrill of those moments spent shivering, beside my grandma, in Rob Decker’s bushes. That night, I realized that those awful rumours about Santa Claus were just what Grandma said they were: Ridiculous! Santa was alive and well … AND WE WERE ON HIS TEAM!
This years talks held by Fr. Duncan McVicar on Dynamic Catholics are now available on DVD. The author Matthew Kelly published a book called “Dynamic Catholics” in which he looks for those things which are game changers in the growth of the Church. He found four factors which are common to those people who are committed dynamic Catholics. Fr. Duncan explores these four topics of prayer, study, generosity and evangelisation from the point of view of the founder of the apostolic movement from Schoenstatt. Gerardo Gonzales made a recording of these talks and they are now available as a set of four DVDs. You can get your copy at the coming Covenant Mass which is our Covenant Mass in Advent.
Welcome to our Covenant Mass in Advent on Wednesday 18th December at 7.30pm at the Shrine. We await in hope the coming of Jesus and we invite many to come the Shrine. We hope to win people for Christ through friendship, generosity and by living answers which make sense to them. Our own hearts are the manger and our homes the stable, waiting to welcome the Saviour in joy. After Mass we have the chance to sing some more Christmas Carols and share light refreshments with one another. On Monday 17th December we begin the Novena of “O Antiphons” in preparation for Christmas. You can register to join in in our Novena of prayer at the Shrine. We look forward to welcoming you to our Covenant Mass in Advent.
Advent is the time we take a look at what is going on in our lives and how we can “get back on the message”. We know that it is the busiest time of the year – in Manchester the Trafford Centre is always full and the shops are always busy. Following “Black Friday” with the official beginning of Christmas Shopping we had “Cyber-Monday” when a new record of on-line shopping was reached and some banking systems failed. There is a lot of noise but are we listening? Advent gives us the time to reflect on the greater moments of life and the important events which change our lives. Bottom line is that Advent is about expecting the arrival of joy, peace and love in justice. The new pad or e-reader can be given as substitutes but Advent reminds us of the real Christmas. Join with Sarah-Leah Pimantel in taking time this Advent to focus on the great gift, the wonderful miracle and the loving mystery of Christmas. To download these meditations please click here