As we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas, I find myself grateful that the Church has established the liturgical calendar in such a way as to help shake us out of our spiritual complacency. The high-points of the Church year—and the larger Christian experience— are referenced so much in our Faith that we may sometimes find ourselves on spiritual autopilot. Before we know it, we might find that solemnities are immediately upon us (or past us), and we feel that we could have benefited from more spiritual preparation. This year, I was looking for a clear and direct theme I could really focus on as Christmas approached. I came across some writings of Venerable Servant of God Fulton Sheen that called to mind certain details of Scripture that my eyes (and spiritual life) might typically gloss over. Recalling the helpless innocence of the Christ-child ready to be born of Mary, Sheen related Mary and Joseph’s plight in searching for late-night shelter in Bethlehem to the lack of hearts open to God which can offer the King of Kings and Lord of Lords a place to dwell and reign:
[W]hen finally the scrolls of history are completed down to the last word of time, the saddest lines of all will be: ‘There was no room in the inn.’ The inn was the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world’s moods, the rendezvous of the worldly, the rallying place of the popular and the successful. But there’s no room in the place where the world gathers. The stable is the place for outcasts, the ignored, and the forgotten… The lesson is: divinity is always where you least expect to find it. So the Son of God-Made-Man is invited to enter into His own world through a back door.
With all the seasonal emphasis on gifts and personal generosity, I am especially touched by that first line and the reality that there was no room made available for the arrival of the long-awaited Son of God. How often do we hear calls to be watchful and ready for the Second Coming of Christ; that is, to be repentant of sin and committed to pursuing holiness? This preparation is what the first part of the Advent season is all about. When we are called before the Final Judgement seat of the Most High, and God Himself shows us what we did or did not do for Him in our earthly encounters with the people in our lives, will we say that it was too difficult or inconvenient to take up what we knew was expected of us? All of the baptized are called to be missionary disciples—people who spread the joy of the Gospel by their very lives. We can bring others into an encounter with the Living God—or at least instill a sense of hope, dignity, and love in those who are in need—in the workplace, at home, in our neighborhoods, in our parishes, and within our families. In doing so, we make room in the inn of our hearts for the Christ-child.
Without Christ present in our hearts and at the core of our being, we will find ourselves serving a different master—be it vices, worldly pleasures, fleeting successes or honors, or other vanities. Just as the innkeepers of Bethlehem two-thousand years ago declined to open their doors to the Holy Family, so too do each of us have the choice either to be seduced by the empty promises of the world or to pursue a life of holiness and of speaking the Truth among the doubtful, suspicious, hateful, or unrepentant.
This Christmas season, let us allow Christ into our lives in order to bring him to others. Let us preach the Gospel with our lives and seek to always make room for him in the inn of our hearts. Christmas is a time for celebration! We rejoice that the Lord God Himself took on human nature and was born as a helpless Child into the world He created in order to free us from sin and death and invite us to live with Him forever. The occasion of Christmas encourages each of us to be a welcoming soul to the Lord rather than one who closed their doors to the Holy Family that holy night:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room.
And let it begin with me. Amen.
 Sheen, Fulton. “Life of Christ” (1954).
 cf. Matthew 25:40.
Thomas Wong is a young professional in Washington, DC.
“The Virgin today brings into the world the Eternal / And the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible. / The angels and shepherds praise him / And the magi advance with the star, / For you are born for us, Little Child, God eternal!” (CCC525)
The quote from the Catechism above references three key players I want to reflect upon at the beginning of this Advent season: Our Lady, the magi, and the shepherds. Today, as we think about the meaning of waiting and watching, upon preparing for Christmas and for the return of the Lord, we can look to these three examples to show us how to look up, set out, and give.
First: It’s important to start off with an understanding of Advent as a liturgical time of waiting and preparation.
I’ve often heard that God has three responses to our prayers: yes, no, or wait—wait being our least favorite of the three. “Wait” seems so indefinite. With a yes or no response, you know, for better or worse, one way or another, what your parameters are. But “wait” requires faith, trust, humility. It requires not knowing exactly when, exactly how, or exactly if.
And that’s one lesson this season can impart: waiting well, waiting in hope. During Advent, we recall the waiting of the world for the birth of the Messiah. The greatest gift from God the Father, the gift of his Son, is coming to us. And in this world which has experienced his coming, we also wait for him to come again.
Each of us awaits something. Perhaps we await a promotion. The completion of a degree. Maybe we long for a spouse or a child. Physical or emotional healing. The answer to our vocational discernment.
In this time of waiting, we are like the Israelites wandering in the desert in pursuit of the Promised Land. It’s there--the Promised Land is there. God is faithful and keeps his promises. But sometimes, we have to wait.
Waiting practically forces us to surrender control and hand everything over to God. It’s a daily practice in humility and faith. It acknowledges that we are not in control and challenges us to trust in the goodness of the One who is. Therefore, waiting has a purpose, an end: God Himself.
And, as with the Israelites in the desert sustained by the descent of manna from heaven, we are fed daily by God himself IF we allow ourselves to be. This means speaking and listening to God in prayer. It means collecting the manna from above, his grace, DAILY. And this brings us to our first point about the Advent season: we need to look up and see.
Mary knew what it meant to look up in prayer. She was so receptive to the word of God that she conceived it through the power of the Holy Spirit.
She was looking up in prayer when the Angel Gabriel announced the Good News of the Messiah.
“Let it be done unto me according to your word.”
These were the words of trust, surrender, and peace--followed by action—the second of our themes today. She looked up and set out in order to give. Immediately after the Annunciation, we read about her going out to help her cousin Elizabeth.
As someone who has experienced the first trimester of pregnancy twice now, I can tell you the last thing I’m thinking about during that time is helping or serving others. I’m usually passed out somewhere trying not to drool.
But Mary has looked up, set out, and given. She was so receptive to God’s word that she was able to fully encounter his message through the Angel Gabriel. Her reception of Christ caused her to set out in haste to see Elizabeth. And finally, to give and serve another by bringing Christ into that home and modeling sacrificial love.
Mary is the perfect example of waiting and being guided by God.
In Scripture, she is described as “pondering things in her heart”—waiting for God to reveal his will and meditating on his work throughout her life. But she is not one who sits on the sideline and fails to engage. She is a contemplative in action—one who treasures the word of God within her (even literally) and yet immediately goes out to Elizabeth in her time of need. Mary brings Jesus to others, from the moment of his conception, wherever she goes and instructs us to “do whatever he tells you,” as at the wedding feast in Cana.
We turn to Mary during this season of Advent because she is an expert at faithful waiting that leads to Christ. So I invite you as we continue our Advent journey to start by spending time with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Re-read the account of the Annunciation and Visitation in Scripture. Ask her help in waiting—faithfully, hopefully, humbly. And invite her to accompany, guide, and prepare you to receive Christ. She always leads others to her Son.
In addition to the example of Mary, the magi can also teach us what it means to wait in hopeful anticipation: to look up and see the star, To set out, To give freely.
The magi, though Gentiles, were not complacent, but so observant that they were able to recognize God’s sign: the star. As Pope Francis said, “The Magi were not content with just getting by, with keeping afloat. They understood that to truly live, we need a lofty goal and we need to keep looking up.”
What keeps us this Advent from looking up and seeing the star? Are we busy scrolling through our social media feeds, binging on the latest Netflix series, working late hours at the office, or anxious about the future? Are we paralyzed by grief, bitterness, anger or fear?
The magi were vigilant, ready to go when the time came. And their hearts were receptive, disposed to the signs of the times. Like Mary, they too set out on a journey which would lead them to Christ himself. This journey required effort, planning, and sacrifice. They looked up, set out, and finally, they gave: bearing costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They met the generosity of God by reciprocating generosity. As Pope Francis has also noted, “To give freely, for the Lord’s sake, without expecting anything in return: this is the sure sign that we have found Jesus.”
Finally, we can also look to the example of the shepherds. Pope Francis says, “They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast. And they were the first because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks.” The shepherds were looking up. After receiving the good news from the angel of the Lord, they go in haste to encounter Christ. And afterwards, they return glorifying and praising God.
In each of these examples, we encounter people who are looking up, setting out, and giving. Mary sets out and gives her time and energy to serve her cousin Elizabeth. The magi set out and give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The shepherds set out and give Christ their adoration and praise.
Will we keep watch in the night alongside the shepherds or are we asleep with the rest of crowded Bethlehem, too distracted by our daily lives and concerns to notice the light of the star beaming down on the light of the world? As we await God’s response in our lives, do we grumble in the desert like the Israelites? Do we take things into our own hands and craft a golden calf? Or do we say to the Lord, “Let it be done unto me according to your word?” This season, will we set out in haste to give our hearts to the Lord and our hands to serve those in need?
Perhaps what’s holding us back from entering into the Advent season is something more than distraction, ignorance, or noise. We may hesitate to meet this Christ-child because we feel as the shepherds most likely did, utterly unworthy. We wear the rags of sin, the stench of humanity. Maybe we feel like the little drummer boy in the popular song who says, “I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give a king.”
In his humility, the Lord entered into the most vulnerable of human states: infancy. He chose to become little in order to demonstrate that all are able and invited to approach him. As Pope Francis also reminds us, “Jesus allows himself to be found by those who seek him, but to find him we need to get up and go.”
So let’s get up and go. There is still time to look for the star, to set out, to give.
I invite you to draw close to Mary, look to the example of the magi, spend time with the shepherds. In looking for Christ, encountering him, and serving others, we find Christ born also in our hearts. Only then, as the Catechism says, “when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled” (CCC526).
Let us pray, “I want to come to Bethlehem, Lord, because there you await me. I want to realize that you, lying in a manger, are the bread of my life. I need the tender fragrance of your love so that I, in turn, can be bread broken for the world. Take me upon your shoulders, Good Shepherd; loved by you, I will be able to love my brothers and sisters and to take them by the hand. Then it will be Christmas, when I can say to you: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you” (cf. Jn 21:17)." -Pope Francis
Kate Fowler is the Blog Editor for the Catholic Apostolate Center. She received her Master's in Leadership for the New Evangelization from the Augustine Institute.
Today we celebrate the 83rd birthday of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. We thank God for the gift of his life and pray for his continued health and leadership in our Church.
Having a birthday near the holidays must be pretty hard to bear as a child, and maybe even sometimes as an adult. Birthdays are meant to be celebrated, and sometimes they can be overshadowed by other holiday celebrations! My sister has a birthday on Christmas Day and she never seemed to be able to celebrate the same ways I could (my birthday is over the summer). I always felt bad and try to still make it special for her - even now that we are adults. Although we know Pope Francis for his humility and selflessness, I’m sure even he has found it hard to celebrate his special day from time to time. We celebrate birthdays as a way to mark our growing one year older, but I’m sure with a birthday so close to Christmas, his focus has often been on Christ. I would imagine, in his ministry, our pope has reflected on the significance of their birthdays being so close and how he can look to the purpose of the season over his own celebrating.
Let’s also reflect on this now. How can we make Jesus’ birthday especially meaningful this year? In what ways can we strive to “celebrate” with Christ? What implications does Christmas have on my upcoming year as I continue to grow in my faith?
“The reason for the season” is a common phrase we hear at this time of the year— a helpful little rhyme to keep us thinking about Jesus’ birth. The purpose of the Son of God coming to Earth was to save us all from our own sins, yet we so often confuse this time with shopping deals and stressful holiday travel plans. Our Lord doesn’t need any of that. He doesn’t need physical gifts—he needs our hearts. He doesn’t need perfection—he yearns for our humble, raw, and disheveled selves. He doesn’t need displays of lights and blow-up snowmen—he needs us to shine his light in the darkness.
In order to celebrate his birth, we must first put aside the distractions and concerns that keep us away from prayer and peace at Christmas. The meaningful celebrating that we should be doing for Christ isn’t wrapped up with bows and shiny paper, but includes finding time to appreciate and pray about our Lord’s coming. The celebration for an ordinary person may be tied to cake, candles, and presents, but as Pope Francis would likely agree, celebrating Christ comes from the heart.
One way I’ve found to celebrate Christ’s birthday amidst the hustle and bustle of the season is by listening to joyful, instrumental Advent and Christmas music. Something about it makes me feel so peaceful and filled with the joy of Christ that I almost prefer it to lyrical Christmas music on the radio or Spotify! Another practice I’ve found to be helpful is focusing on the giving aspect of Christmas. I feel better giving rather than getting things. My favorite way to celebrate the birth of Jesus is to share the gift of the Christmas story with my young Pre-Kindergarten students. Having been blessed to work in a Catholic school, I’m able to share the incredible birth story of Jesus Christ and to teach those beautiful little minds about God’s promise of love to the world. When I sit back and realize the gravity of my role as a catechist to these children, I feel humbled by it. My heart soars, it prepares my soul for Christmas, and I’m reminded of this holy birthday from so long ago in Bethlehem.
As we look toward a new year, both for Pope Francis and for us Catholics, we are reminded that Christmas is only the beginning of Christ’s work on Earth. His ministry will begin at a wedding as an adult farther down the line, and his death and Resurrection happen even later than that.
We know Christ’s birthday was celebrated by angels sharing the Good News. We know there were shepherds who also heard about Jesus’ birth, and finally three wise men who followed the star to where Jesus was born. This new year has so much faith-filled potential to allow us a chance to listen closely to how the Gospel message tells us to love and to share our love with those we meet. We can show God’s love to all by living out each day as apostles who share the Good News.
So today, on this 83rd birthday of our pope, keep him in your prayers. Pray for continued faithful leadership in our Church at this tumultuous time in our world. Pray for his health, that he may find strength in Christ and remain well.
Feliz cumpleaños, Papa Francisco!
For more resources to accompany you this Advent and Christmas, please click here.
Krissy Pierno is a teacher for the Archdiocese of Washington.
“At the school of Mary, we learn that her life is marked not by protagonism but by the capacity to enable others to be protagonists. She offers courage, teaches people to speak, and above all encourages people to live the boldness of faith and hope. In this way she becomes the transparency of the Lord’s face who shows his power by inviting and calling people to participate in building up his living temple.” – Pope Francis, Homily on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 2018
Such a strange thing Christ has done! He has left his mission to the baptized until he comes again in glory at the end of time. This is the part of Advent waiting that we often do not dwell on. The first half of Advent is very much focused, though, on this reality. Our waiting is not passive, but very active. We are protagonists who are called to boldly witness Christ in our lives. Bold witness in the way of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who encouraged St. Juan Diego to go forth to build not simply a physical temple in the Lord, but one that is living.
In a time of needed renewal within the Church, we turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary to be with us, but also to give us example. She did not focus on the reality of the change in her life when she heard the message of the Angel Gabriel. Instead, she rose and went “in haste” to her cousin Elizabeth to rejoice and be in solidarity with her. Elizabeth’s son, St. John the Baptist, later went forth to prepare others for the coming of the Messiah through conversion of hearts and minds to the Lord. We, too, are meant to do the same. We cannot sit back and wait for others, but need to go forth with urgency, in haste, “inviting and calling people to participate in building up his living temple.”
This inviting and calling that enables “others to be protagonists” has a name – co-responsibility. It is co-responsibility for the mission of Christ and his Church. Pope Francis invites us to “move towards a participatory and co-responsible Church, one capable of appreciating its own rich variety, gratefully accepting the contributions of the lay faithful, including young people and women, consecrated persons, as well as groups, associations and movements. No one should be excluded or exclude themselves” (Christus Vivit, 206). Therefore, may our Advent waiting not be passive, but very active in our bold witness of Emmanuel, King of the Nations and Prince of Peace!
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
Fr. Frank S. Donio, S.A.C., D.Min. is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center.
We have entered the season of Advent and a new liturgical year. Advent offers us an important time for us to watch, wait, and reflect on the coming of Jesus Christ, on our encounter with him. He is encountered in the mystery of the Incarnation, which we represent by Nativity scenes placed in our churches, chapels, and homes. We can stop at the beauty of the artistic scene and not move ourselves into deeper reflection on the fact that God, who is infinite love and mercy, sent his only begotten Son to save us.
Christ is also encountered in the Eucharist, most significantly during the celebration of the Mass. Pope Francis describes this coming of Jesus:
“Mass is prayer; rather, it is prayer par excellence, the loftiest, the most sublime, and at the same time the most ‘concrete’. In fact, it is the loving encounter with God through his Word and the Body and Blood of Jesus. It is an encounter with the Lord.” (General Audience, November 15, 2017).
And Christ will come again in all his glory at the end of time. We need to be prepared for this time not simply through passive waiting, but by active watching for the Lord and encountering him in our brothers and sisters who are most in need, especially the poor, the vulnerable, and the voiceless (Mt. 25:31-46). As baptized members of the Body of Christ, we are co-responsible for the mission that he left us until he comes again – for the salvation of souls – not only focusing on eternal life with God, but also on how we are collaborating with the Most Holy Trinity to build the Kingdom of God on this side of life.
Pope Francis reminds us of the connection of the Immaculate Conception to the salvific plan of God.
“In the Immaculate Conception of Mary we are invited to recognize the dawn of the new world, transformed by the salvific work of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The dawn of the new creation brought about by divine mercy. For this reason, the Virgin Mary, never infected by sin and always full of God, is the mother of a new humanity. She is the mother of the recreated world.” (Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 2015)
We have not been conceived without sin, but we have been washed clean of Original Sin at Baptism (and all prior sin, if one was baptized as an adult). While we have all sinned since that time, our Baptism offers us a share in the mission of Jesus Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King. Though followers or disciples, he also sends us as apostles, or as missionary disciples, out into our challenging world to witness to him by what we say and do. That is why we are told at the end of each Mass to “Go”. We are sent on mission by Christ and the Church as joyful witnesses of God’s love and mercy.
Our best example of how to be a missionary disciple of Jesus Christ is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She followed Jesus as his disciple unfailingly during her life and continues from her heavenly home as Queen of Apostles to invite us to encounter her Son, Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Lord.
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
The Catholic Apostolate Center is a ministry of the Immaculate Conception Province of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Fathers and Brothers). The Pallottines and the Center staff will remember you in special prayer on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
Fr. Frank S. Donio, S.A.C., D.Min. is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center.
From Amoris Laetitia to Christus Vivit, one of Pope Francis’s greatest gifts to the Church has been his emphasis on spiritual accompaniment. Pope Francis has exhorted the Church to make use of accompaniment in response to sensitive pastoral situations, ailing youth ministries, and even to a humanity suffering from isolation and anonymity. Accompaniment, to Pope Francis, is a way of being in intentional relationship with another in order to lead them “ever closer to God” (EG, 170). In addition to being oriented towards leading others into closeness and intimacy with God, Pope Francis also describes accompaniment as healing, liberating, gradual, encouraging growth, and fostering freedom. Perhaps the most beautiful words that Pope Francis uses to shape the Church’s understanding and practice of accompaniment is an “art…which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (EG, 169).
What does it truly mean to “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” in terms of accompaniment? How does this shape the apostolate of a mentor? A key to understanding this meaning lies in the scriptural story found in: Exodus 3—the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush. In this story, Moses beholds an awe-inspiring sight, a bush that is on fire but unconsumed by it. He then turns to look more closely at the bush, from which comes a theophany, or an instance of God revealing God’s self to a human person. God calls out to Moses by name, to which Moses responds, “Here I am!” Before Moses can come any closer to the bush and consider it further, God exclaims to him:
“Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, he continued, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:5-6).
What are we to make of this scripture passage, especially in light of Pope Francis’s understanding of accompaniment? Firstly, the Exodus reference exhorts us to view the other we are accompanying not only with respect, but with reverence. As we begin to accompany others, we must look upon them not as receptacles to be filled with knowledge, passive recipients of teaching, or soft clay to be modeled into our own images and likeness as ministers. Instead, in accompaniment, we are called to witness to another’s belovedness as a child of God. When we enter into a relationship of accompaniment with another, we must have a posture of humility and honor before those we accompany. This posture of reverence is fundamental to a mentor’s practice of accompaniment, rendering them better able to foster a relationship that is truly transformative.
Secondly, the theophany in the Exodus story gives us another clue into understanding more fully the duties of accompaniment. We must respect the accompanying relationship as a legitimate place where God reveals God’s self to both mentor and the one accompanied. Accompaniment takes seriously the fact that human experience is a space where God reveals God’s self; in other words, accompaniment affirms that the life experience of the one accompanied is “a locus for the manifestation and realization of salvation, where God consistently with the pedagogy of the Incarnation, reaches man within his grace and saves him” (General Directory for Catechesis, #152c). In a relationship of accompaniment where a mentor is asked to “remove their sandals before the sacred ground of the other,” mentors must help the ones they accompany interpret their experiences in light of scripture, discern more fully the action of God in their lives, and wait with full anticipation to respond to God’s voice in the midst of their daily life.
Finally, this scriptural passage exhorts mentors to maintain and cherish the mystery of the one they accompany. As Moses hides his face before God present in the burning bush, so too must mentors respect with holy fear that which is mystery in the life of those they accompany. Though we might come to know those who we accompany well or even develop a deep bond with them, they never belong to us completely, but are instead placed in our path for a period of time so that we might help them foster connection and intimacy with God. Though we might have plans, hopes, or desires for those we accompany, we must always ensure that we respect the work of the Holy Spirit in the relationship of accompaniment. Accompaniment cannot be reduced to a neat list of objectives or learning outcomes; rather, it is a “pedagogy which will introduce people step by step to the full appropriation of the mystery” (EG, 171). True accompaniment wrestles with the intricacies of human life, cautioning mentors that “realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without” (EG, 172). As mentors, we cannot assume that we are the ones that ultimately decide how or why the Spirit moves the way it does in the life of those we accompany. Instead, we must continually reflect on how the person before us in the relationship of accompaniment is being formed not by us, but by the Holy Spirit.
Accompaniment, when contemplated as an “art” that “teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other,” calls us to have a posture of reverence before the ones we accompany, regard their human experiences as privileged places for God to reveal God’s self, and maintain a sense of mystery in the relationship of accompaniment. How are we being called to remove our sandals before others in our life and ministry? How might removing our sandals before those we accompany allow us to travel more readily on the journey towards growth in holiness and transformation in the Person of Christ?
Colleen Campbell is a collaborator of the Catholic Apostolate Center, and a 3rd year PhD student studying Catechetics at The Catholic University of America. She holds an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas. Colleen is also an alumna of Notre Dame’s Echo program, where she served in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. She is co-author of The Art of Accompaniment: Theological, Spiritual, and Practical Elements of Building a More Relational Church.
Missionaries around the world were excited on October 22, 2017 when Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary Missionary Month in October 2019. The fruit of that month lacks luster, but the seeds are heavy with promise.
Some of us were grieved by the lack of attention given to mission, hoping that the Church would give it more time and energy. Mission always leads to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The beauty and power of mission is so often seen in the lives of the saints. Missionaries themselves know they need to expand and deepen their own human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation in order to address the hopes and dreams, the griefs and anxieties of every human being. We hoped the people of God would be generous with their spiritual and financial support of mission.
Considerable efforts were made by Mission Directors from around the country to lift-up mission within the local church. There were some wonderful celebrations – remembering the missionary roots of the diocese, sharing the missionary story, promoting all the ways the faithful are engaged in mission. Regrettably, we are not always aware of how our faith stems from the faithful, and often heroic, efforts of missionaries who witness the Gospel in our hometown.
Some learned new things about mission they did not know before, particularly the lives of saints who embodied the missionary spirit. Perhaps the story of Sr. Dorothy Stang, S.N.D de Namur, who taught catechism and justice to the indigenous people of the Amazon, and the stories of many others moved lay people to learn more about these missionaries and the importance of the Amazon for our common home.
There were efforts to deepen and expand the formation of missionaries – a few conferences, some webinars. USCMA focused on reconciliation as an aspect of mission and explored the missionary task of reconciliation among those who suffer from racism in America and the spirituality needed to sustain the mission and ministry of reconciliation.
Roger Schroeder defines mission as “proclaiming, serving, and witnessing to God’s reign of love, salvation and justice.” Sometimes “evangelization” replaces the word mission. Too often, evangelization is understood in very narrow terms – as the verbal proclamation of the Gospel. As Catholics, we know in our bones that words – even very good words expertly crafted and amazingly articulated – are insufficient. Words need integrity that flows from lives lived in service to others purely out of the love of God. As St. Francis is often quoted as saying, “preach always and, if necessary, use words.” Mission is evangelization embodied. Pope Francis said in Joy of the Gospel, “I am a mission.”
Mission is rooted in the very heart of God. Anthony Gittins, a leading missiologist, said “Mission is God’s job description, it is what he does and who he is.” Jesus is the preeminent missionary. He was sent by the Father to bring love, salvation, and justice to the world. Jesus continues this mission – everyday – through those of us who are baptized and sent into the world. The missionary goes beyond themselves, steps outside their comfort zone, crosses some type of border, and risks a personal encounter with another human being in the name of God’s inexhaustible love.
There are wonderful signs of hope that the people of God are beginning to move from maintenance to mission. Parishes around the country are creating partnerships to build bridges and relationships of solidarity with people in other cities, states, and countries. Dioceses are forming partnerships with other dioceses. Catholic high school students are cultivating relationships with other students around the world through video technology and social media.
Bishop Barron, at the recent gathering of the US Bishops, stressed the need for the church to reach out to the growing number of the “disaffiliated;” people who do not affiliate with any religion. Two of his three points speak directly to mission – engage people in the work of justice and create parishes to be “missionary societies.”
What if every parish had a mission commission or team that would organize the missionary activities of the parish? Some parishes have a neighborhood mission to the homeless, regular mission trips to the poor in Appalachia, or a long-standing partnership with a parish in another country. Not all parishes can be completely dedicated to mission, but every parish can, in some way, be a missionary society.
All are called to be missionary disciples, but not all can be missionaries. A missionary is a ministry of the Church – just like a catechist. Most of us have had some type of missionary experience where we reached out beyond ourselves, for the good of another, with only their good, their blessing, as our goal. All of us can come together, share our missionary experiences, and discern where Jesus is sending us.
We are the seeds of the Extraordinary Month of Mission. We who heard Jesus say to us personally, “The Father has sent me, now I send you.”
Dr. Donald R. McCrabb is the Executive Director of the United States Catholic Mission Association and a pastoral theologian serving the pastoral formation needs of priests, religious, and lay people. A former campus minister, Don and Barbara Humphrey McCrabb, his wife, are authors of Rise Take the Child – Reflections on the Vocation of Adoption.
We’re well into the first week of Advent, and if you’re like me, you’re probably sick of all the Christmas displays and music and consumerism that has bombarded our senses since November started. As an American, it’s always been easy for me to get pulled into the secular world’s excitement about Christmas, its eagerness to get started with all the partying, eating, gift swapping, caroling, and general Christmas cheer. But as I’ve deepened my faith as a Catholic, I have found that the more focus I put on Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas, the easier it is to block out the unending secular Christmas noise and ready my heart, my home, and my family for the coming of the Christ child.
For most people, the phrase “preparing for Christmas” probably evokes memories of setting up Christmas trees and hanging lights outside, wrapping gifts, or organizing the ideal Christmas classics playlist. And while those things certainly count as preparation for Christmas, won’t we suffer burnout—or what I have seen referred to as “the holiday hangover”—if we spend all of November and December with our house decked out for Christmas and with Christmas music playing all day long? I know I would.
A few years ago, as I was researching Catholic Advent traditions that I could incorporate into my family’s liturgical life, I decided that I ought to shift our emphasis from when to set up the Christmas décor and instead focus on the spiritual longing and the growing excitement for the arrival of the Messiah. Traditionally and liturgically, Christmastide lasts many days—at the very least until the Epiphany, but usually until the Baptism of the Lord. Why not leave the Christmas celebrations until Christmastide and focus on the preparation during Advent? Israel spent countless years in hopeful anticipation of the savior—is it really so difficult for me and my family to spend four weeks emulating that same sense of joyful expectation?
The Catholic Church has so many symbols and traditions from which we can draw to prepare our hearts and homes for Christ. In our house, we not only light the Advent wreath every night, but we darken the dining room lights in order to emphasize the light that Christ brought when he came into the world. We also recently implemented the Jesse Tree—a tradition I did not grow up with, but one that I have come to love because it condenses salvation history into a timeline that is easy even for my children to follow. We don’t listen to Christmas music during Advent, choosing instead to listen to Advent music. We read children’s books that discuss the animals’ preparing the barn before the Nativity, or the journey that Mary and Joseph took before Jesus was born.
When we experience Advent in this way, the anticipation for Christmas builds with each passing week. As Christmas Day draws closer, we start baking and freezing the Christmas cookies to be eaten during Christmastide and to be given as gifts at Christmas parties. I take time to plan out special activities for us to do during the twelve days of Christmas, or special meals I know everyone will enjoy during that time. We pray the O Antiphons. We make or buy gifts for our loved ones, and we talk about how giving gifts to our loved ones is a reflection of the great gift of Jesus, who was given to us on Christmas Day.
In this way, when we finally decorate the house on Christmas Eve, we are all practically bouncing with excitement—and not just about presents, but about the miracle of Christ’s birth. Our children’s—and our own—sense of wonder is bolstered and preserved by our not celebrating too early. By steeping ourselves in the history of the first Christmas and by maintaining that same sense of watchful hoping and waiting, we can more fully appreciate the wonder of the arrival of the promised Messiah.
Helena Romano is an Editing Associate for the Catholic Apostolate Center.