One of our beautiful Christmas traditions at St. Paul Seminary where I live is to engage in a “secret Santa” exchange of gifts. We did so a little early this year because of our seminarians’ final exam schedules. Actually, since it was around the feast of St. Nicholas, the jolly ol’ bishop paid us a visit. He and his “Secret Service” sidekick enhanced our evening with joy and laughter.
After exchanging our individual gifts, the seminarians surprised our rector, Father Thomas Sparacino, and myself with individual gifts from all the St. Paul seminarians. They handed me a Christmas bag filled with several items — a coffee cup, an insulated mug, a replica of a hand signaling “the No. 1” — all of which had this message attached: “Amazing Grandpa.” I was thrilled, not only with the gifts, but especially with the thought that that’s how the seminarians, and I might add very respectfully, view me.
Following on the heels of that celebration, I joined members of the Serra Club (a lay organization that supports vocations to the priesthood) for their Advent gathering. One of the guests, a mother of one of our seminarians, asked what I most wanted for Christmas. I didn’t have to think for more than a couple of seconds. My answer was: “All I want for Christmas is for God to protect our nation, all nations, our church and our homes from every evil and all harm.”
That may sound like a pretty tall order. But isn’t that what God wants for us for Christmas and beyond?
Learn, love, live Jesus
Remember the words of the angels who appeared to the shepherds on that first Christmas? A slight tweak on the traditional phrasing: “Peace on Earth, good will to all.” It’s a gift God wants us not only to receive, but to embrace and to share.
God wants us to set aside our differences, personal and political. God calls us to treat each and every person — even those who drive us up a wall — as his beloved children. God never wants us to see any group of people as a nameless, anonymous, threatening collective. He sees each individual woman, man and child, each created in his image and likeness, with their own hopes and fears and prayers for the future. He wants us, each of us, to be a blessing to them.
How can you and I help to bring “peace on Earth, good will to all?”
May I suggest that we start by seeking “to learn, to love and to live Jesus.”
“Learning, loving, living Jesus” — becoming his disciples — means spending time in prayer and with the Bible, in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and going to Mass so that we get to know him better. It means coming to know his will for our lives wrapped with his love and mercy for each and all of us. That’s why I have called every Catholic and parish in the six counties of the Diocese of Pittsburgh to be On Mission for The Church Alive! Our time, our energies and our lives must be poured into Jesus’ mission for our parishes, homes and neighborhoods.
Think about our church. The shepherds listened to the angels, went to meet Jesus and then told others what they had discovered. This is what you and I need to do. Just like the shepherds, we need to take others to Jesus. For example, when you consider how to respond to any new plan for your parish, first see how your actions will bring others to Jesus. Seek unity and reconciliation. Peace on Earth, good will toward all.
Think also about our world. We are hearing the most direct nuclear threats in decades, with millions of lives at stake. Wars continue in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. The uneasy peace of Jerusalem is getting uneasier. Genocide continues in Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Burundi. Many victims are Christians, but Muslims, Yazidis and others are also being slaughtered. God loves each of these people who live in fear for their lives. It is imperative that we find ways to speak up on their behalf. Peace on Earth, good will to all.
Stand up to prejudice
Think about our nation. Many public figures are stirring the pot of hatred in a way that we have not seen since Martin Luther King Jr. became a martyr for the dream that children of all colors may play together. Violence interrupts our sense of security almost daily with shocking news of shootings. People who have been our good neighbors in America for decades, with and without documents, are threatened with deportation. People of any color — black, white, red — are feeling the suffocation of bigotry and prejudice. We all need to stand up to the tide of prejudice, especially when it means standing alongside those with whom we may not usually agree. Peace on Earth, good will to all.
Think about our headlines. The church has learned from hard experience that it is immoral and self-defeating to excuse or ignore sexual predation. Today’s new revelations in the secular world — brought by courageous women and men — call everyone to practice moral virtue in their professional and personal relationships, and what it means to honor the beauty of the human body as God our Creator created it to be, respected and revered. Peace on Earth, good will to all.
Think about our homes. The culture of the marketplace slips in like a cold draft. On the increase, husbands and wives are harsh or callous to each other, often forgetting that they promised to love and cherish each other. Too many adults no longer make the commitment of love and fidelity “until death do us part.” Children spend more time with digital devices than with their parents, and most others as well. So many no longer find home at home. It seems to me that this holy season gives us the chance now to start to heal the broken hearts around us, to apologize for wrongs we’ve done to our loved ones, to practice daily saying “thanks,” to make and keep solemn commitments. Peace on Earth, good will to all.
As priest and bishop, my family is this diocese. Spiritually, you are my children. I must answer to God for how I care for you, how much I love you, how much I try to help you get to heaven. That is why the bag of “Amazing Grandpa” gifts touched me so deeply. We really are a family in the church. Like all families, we do have differences and quarrels. But we also have to have each other’s backs.
That’s why all I want for Christmas is that God protect our nation, all nations, our church and our homes from every evil and all harm.
This Christmas and in the coming year, we DO need to take many steps forward “to learn Jesus, to love Jesus, to live Jesus.” “Peace on Earth, good will to all.”