Reflection on Scripture Readings: Christmas Mass During the Night

This video reflection appeared on the USCCB website for Christmas Day 2021. The text of the message is below along with a link to the Scripture readings on which they are based.

Christmas Mass During the Night | December 25

Hodie Christus natus est!
That is Latin for “Today Christ is born!” Sung as part of the Liturgy of the Hours for centuries, the refrain from the responsorial psalm from the Christmas Mass During the Night echoes these words. Hodie in Latin can be translated as “today” but it can also mean “at this time,” “still,” or “in this very moment.” So, as we gather in our churches and with family today, we aren’t just calling to mind something that happened 2000 years ago. We are remembering that Christ is born “today,” – “still” “in this very moment.” Right now, we are experiencing Christmas anew in our hearts and in our world.

St. Francis of Assisi understood this. In the thirteenth century, when the prayers of the Mass were spoken only in Latin – a language which, like today, few people spoke or understood – Francis knew that people needed a new and unique way to really “get” the message about God’s overflowing love in becoming human. He wanted them to feel in their hearts the utter humility of God being born in the poverty of a manger, and how close God is to the poor. So, Francis borrowed some animals, set up straw in a cave outside the town, got people to play the roles of Mary and Joseph and set up a wax figure of the Christ Child. Shepherds were already in the nearby hills, watching over their flocks like in the Gospel! And so St. Francis became the first person to set up what we recognize today as a Christmas creche, or nativity scene. When people came to see the scene, Francis, preached about the first Christmas and how their faith in Christ could transform their lives and bring about an end to hatred. And the people experienced the closeness of the Christ Child and the mystery of Christmas in their lives “at that moment,” in a new way.

St. Francis’ Christmas creche has inspired nativity scenes large and small throughout history – in churches, family homes, and public spaces. And so, today, when we look at the beautiful nativity scene of Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus in the manger, the shepherds gathered around – we aren’t looking at it like an historical photograph in a newspaper or a history book. We are looking at it with the eyes of faith. It certainly reminds us of the biblical story in its time, but it speaks to us “now” – at this moment.

The “now” of our faith which we experience viewing the Christmas nativity is found in all of the readings for the Christmas liturgies, but especially in the readings for the Mass During the Night.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that it is “now” that the people who were in darkness are able to walk in light and that oppression and yokes which have held people down are smashed by the Prince of Peace, who comes to govern justly – “now” and forever. The Gospel from St. Luke reminds us that the historical time of Christ’s birth was filled with social unrest and dislocation. But it is in the midst of these challenges that God becomes present in the flesh to us. Fear is disrupted in favor of awe as “good news” comes – not from Caesar or Quirinius – but from the manger in Bethlehem. And we are reminded “at this very moment,” that God’s glory still comes, even in the midst of difficult days.

And the second reading from Paul’s letter to Titus tells us why God did all this – so we may have hope and be strengthened in doing what is good – following the example of the Christ who was born to draw us back to the God who loves us.
So as we celebrate this wonderful, blessed, sacred day and gather with family and loved ones at Mass, around the Christmas tree, at a meal – wherever and whenever – may we pause – perhaps in front of the nativity scene in our parish church or in our homes – to give thanks, and to ask God for the continual gift to see each day, and each moment of our lives, as “the now moment” – the “today”- when Christ wishes to be born anew in the hearts of each one of us.

Merry Christmas!

Ministry Resourcing: Synod and Synergy

In the Catholic Church across the globe much good fruit has come from the first years of the Synod, which has enabled deep dialogue and important conversations in our parishes, institutions and other settings, and has facilitated a national synthesis which can carry larger joys, hopes, and needs to the intercontinental and global levels. Pope Francis has extended the synod through 2024. This invitation to further engagement and action will take shape in the coming months, but at its heart, the Holy Father is reminding us, as he himself said in a 2019 address to the Permanent Synod of the Ukranian-Greek Catholic Church, “It is not enough to have a synod; you must be a synod. The Church needs intense internal sharing: a living dialogue…:”

The Greek word for “synod,” as many now are very familiar, means “to walk together.” It is companion to another word important for all those involved in the work of ministry in today’s church “sunergou” – which means “workers together,” or, as we speak it, “co-workers.” It is the same word from which we get the term “synergy,” meaning a coming together that produces results greater than the sum of its parts.

“Synod” and “synergy” are already well known to those in lay ministry – found in the decades of work engaging in theological conversatio, collaboration across organizations and dioceses, and mutual support of one another as we live out our vocations to ministry in today’s Church. Synod and synergy remain crucial ecclesial responses in times which have driven people to deep separation – from one another, the common good, and, at times, within our very hearts – and realities which have limited our common energy. The wonderful document Towards a Spirituality for Synodality produced by the Vatican’s Commission on Spirituality’s sub-group on synodality reminds us of the way in which the nature of the Church is a communion of believers, and that the communion of the Holy Trinity animates it. The document is an excellent theological and pastoral reflection which some may wish to read reflectively and prayerfully during Advent. It reminds us of why we give thanks as we respond to the call to build upon the Holy Spirit’s work in our synod, and in our synergy. Together, we continue to call forth from the Church all the gifts of all of the People of God for ministry.

The work of the synod helps frame my own work in the world of Catholic lay ministry, together with the USCCB Subcommittee on Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service over the past year:

  • The subcommittee spent a good deal of time this year receiving direct feedback on its existing resources and work from bishops, diocesan lay ministry leaders, leaders of national ministry organizations and the contributions submitted about lay ministry in the national synod process. These resources have helped the subcommittee to discern with these constituencies what is most needed in support of lay ministry in this critical time, and how to carry those needs forward into upcoming USCCB strategic planning endeavors. View our activities report here.
  • This fall, the Subcommittee approved updated ministry formation and certification standards and competencies for the Archdiocese of Chicago, as administered in collaboration with the Institute for Pastoral Leadership (IPL) at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. The Subcommittee’s review praised the IPL team for adapting to new needs in the preparation of lay ecclesial ministers for roles such as pastoral associates, directors and coordinators of religious education, and similar positions in adult faith formation and youth ministry. Click here to view a summary of the Archdiocesan program, read quotations from Cardinal Cupich of Chicago and Bishop Gerald Kicanas, the subcommittee chairman, and to get more information.
  • I have continued to offer consulting support to the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC) as they are working to not only build upon their strength in resourcing ordained and lay Catholic chaplains through board certification, but to expand engagements in other areas of spiritual care through the Partners in Pastoral Care initiative. This ongoing collaboration has included partners in prison ministries, palliative care, home-based care, seafarer and port of call ministries, and more.
  • The Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition (CPMC) continues to grow and evolve, and my consulting support with this vital group has helped bring about an increasingly strong network of diocesan leaders in the area of prison ministries and pastoral care. Efforts to form prison ministries volunteers based on standards approved by the subcommittee, and held in the joint care of NACC and CPMC, have also expanded. Cohort participants utilize a hybrid model of learning and ministry engagement and mentorship in the local setting for a total of 30 hours. CPMC offers an amazing array of prison ministries specific webinars all available for free on their website. One such web event focused on addiction recovery in prison contexts, and featured Cardinal Joseph Tobin and other excellent speakers. The online event was co-sponsored by the subcommittee.
  • My work, and the work of the subcommittee was recognized in a book recently published by Paulist Press on the development of graduate programs and other forms of preparation for professional Catholic lay ministers in leadership roles in parishes, chaplaincy, pastoral care and religious education. I was recognized along with previous leaders of the office and similar leaders within the USCCB. The new book, Transforming Ministry Formation,  is a collection of scholarly essays on topics related to lay ministry formation produced by representatives of the Association of Graduate Programs in Ministry (AGPIM). AGPIM is an organization of educators, theologians and administrators representing Roman Catholic institutions that offer graduate programs in ministry which prepare students for various areas of ministry in the Church including parish and family life, pastoral care, and religious education. You can read more about the book and AGPIM here.

The year saw a continued hybridity with national conferences. Representing the subcommittee, I participated in virtual events with AGPIM and NALM, the Catholic Criminal Justice Reform Network inaugural in-person conference, sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute and co-sponsored by CPMC and others, and the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests Conference. I was able to present about the work of the subcommittee and our collaborative relationships at the Catholic Campus Ministry Association conference and the NACC conference as well. There are presentations our office is scheduled to give at AGPIM’s annual conference, the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators (NACPA) and together with an African Catholic leaders panel at the African National Eucharistic Congress. Fees received from organizations who participate in the development and use of USCCB-approved ministry formation standards help defray costs for these presentations, and allow us to enhance our support of similar endeavors across the country. 

Additionally, I started or continued consulting efforts with the following groups:

  • V Encuentro Young Adult Hispanic Leadership Initiative (VEYAHLI)
  • Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston
  • Diocese of Charleston
  • Diocese of Tucson
  • Diocese of San Bernardino
  • Diocese of Stockton
  • Federación de Institutos Pastorales
  • Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons
  • National Association of Pastoral Musicians
  • National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry
  • National Association of African Catholics in the U.S.

You can learn more about the ongoing work of this subcommittee and my office which supports their work at usccb.org/certification. Also be sure to check my own News & Blog page for reflection videos on readings for Catholic Mass which appear on the USCCB website and other news as well.

Perisphere Media 

My engagement with Perisphere Media has continued to be a further source of gratitude. Ongoing opportunities to collaborate with Matt Smith and this dedicated team working to enhance the web presence and digital communications efforts of many small business and nonprofits across the country has been a joy for many years. Perisphere Media also hosts and maintains this website as a vital tool to share my professional activities, and designers on our team have helped produce my Christmas cards for many years. If you are a nonprofit or any type or a small business in need of development or support for your website, and are looking to enhance your strategic approach to digital communications, consider Perisphere Media. You can contact Perisphere at [email protected].

Consultation Services

Those of you who are engaged in ministry work, who have a need for theological expertise or research and are looking for an experienced consultant in these areas, I encourage you to contact me at [email protected]

Check Out Past Years’ Updates

Below are the links which will take you to past recent updates from Christmas and other celebrations and events.

Card Quotation

This year’s lyric quotation on my Christmas card comes from the liturgical song “Come Weal, Come Woe,” composed by John Foley, SJ, of the Saint Louis Jesuits. Here is a version of it to reflect on:

Personal Updates

In the annals of science fiction, 2022 is the year in which the 1973 ecological dystopian movie Soylent Green takes place. In the story, the cumulative effects of overpopulation, pollution and global climate change caused severe worldwide shortages of food, water and housing. Only the elite can afford spacious apartments, clean water, and natural food. The homes of the elite are fortified, with security systems and bodyguards. The poor live in squalor, haul water from communal spigots, and eat highly processed wafers, including Soylent Green. Through a series of incidents involving a murder investigation, it is discovered that the Soylent megacorporation is harvesting the bodies of the dead to turn into the Soylent Green food product. The movie is, of course, a commentary on a wide range of issues that affect the planet and on systems of exploitation that treat far too many with immorality and injustice. Regrettably, this nearly 50 year old film still has lessons and warnings for us as a society. May we have ears to hear!

Fortunately, my personal 2022 was not dystopian. The first part of the year was spent adjusting to a “new normal,” even as we collectively weathered another wave of Covid. Regrettably, after two years avoiding it, I contracted Covid during Holy Week in April this year. Fortunately, the duration was limited to about 4 days of fever, congestion, fatigue and aches. Easter Sunday I was able to “rise from the bed,” and continued to convalesce over the following weeks, mostly overcoming fatigue. I remain so grateful for the vaccines which helped keep my case “mild,” and for the medical community who continue to work hard to keep us safe, even though we often don’t pay enough attention to their advice. I am grateful for all of them.

When the war in Ukraine started in March, I was able to join the local Ukranian Catholic community in Baltimore for Divine Liturgy and prayer for their community and loved ones undergoing such terrible injustice and violence there. In April, I enjoyed a concert from the a capella women’s singing group from Washington, DC, Sweet Honey in the Rock, as they played at an arts institute in my home town of Utica. I was able to invite friends over to my home throughout the year for enjoying days and evenings on newly completed roof deck, including enjoying a Paul McCartney concert when he played at Camden Yards in June. We are close enough to the stadium to hear the music! Friends and I were also able to enjoy fireworks throughout the city of Baltimore, including the official ones in the Inner Harbor with some great views from the roof deck on July 4! I continue to enjoy being close to many friends in the Baltimore area and taking advantage of the many parks in the city, including the Fort McHenry National Monument (of Francis Scott Key fame) walking circle. Additionally, the Baltimore neighborhood in which I live – Pigtown – celebrated the return of its street festival this fall, which was a wonderful celebration.

In May, I was blessed to join my cousin Bob and family in Syracuse, NY, celebrating the First Communion of one of my goddaughters, his daughter, Tori. Later that month, my other goddaughter, Monica, made her Confirmation in Virginia, and I was able to join her family and my dear friends Andrea, Kenneth, and her older brother Simon at the liturgy. Simon was an altar server for the Mass, too! Our friends Cathy and Michael joined as well, with Cathy being Monica’s sponsor. In September, I travelled to Virginia with my friends Andrea and Heather to celebrate the ordination of a mutual friend from graduate school, Natalie, as she was ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church after several years of formation and study. Her husband and daughter helped to vest her during the liturgy. I was able to stay and participate when she presided at her first Mass the following day as well. In July, I was in Utica again to celebrate the 80th birthday of my Aunt Phyllis, my late mother’s sister, and to enjoy the celebration of the Feast of St. Mary of Mt. Carmel at my parish community there, which included the below procession.

I am now in my fourth year at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., working in support of lay ministry in a variety of ways – mentioned elsewhere on this page. Part of the work has allowed me to travel to various conferences, including the Catholic Criminal Justice Reform Initiative in D.C. in April, the Catholic Campus Ministry Association conference in San Antonio in May (which included a visit to the nearby Alamo), the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests near Baltimore in June, and the National Association of Catholic Chaplains conference in Buffalo in August, which also allowed me to visit the nearby Buffalo Bisons Minor League Baseball team – Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. At the NACC event, I also met up unexpectedly with Sr. Judith, with whom I worked for many years at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Utica when I was in my 20s. Combined with several virtual conferences, it was a full year on that front as many groups returned to some hybrid programming and in-person events.

There was also sadness in January, May and November as three friends passed away – all either somewhat or very unexpectedly. My friend Regina, who went home to God in May, was a member of the choir in Utica in which I have participated, had a beautiful voice and a beautiful heart, along with her sister Rosanne. It was a hard loss for everyone. I am grateful that I was able to be present in-person, and that the funeral was live streamed. It is worth your time to view – simply to listen to the remembrance reflections from our dear friend and fellow choir member, Vincent, and the music of the funeral which was full of Regina’s favorites.

Another choir member, Bill, who was in ill health, passed away early in the year, and his memorial Mass was held in the spring. Rev. Douglas Grace, a Presbyterian pastor I had the good fortune to know through my work with Ecumenical Advocacy Days, died of an unexpected illness in November, 4 months after becoming pastor of a Presbyterian church in his hometown. Here is a video of him at the advocacy gathering in 2017, doing what he did best, making people feel welcomed in his kind way and using humor to highlight the priority of the Gospel in all things.

I also became aware this year of the passing of two high school classmates in 2021: Erin (Tobin) Pratt and Lisa Falange. I am deeply saddened by these losses and pray for their families who continue to bear the burden of grief. Finally, while it wasn’t a death of a person, those of us who graduated from the former Washington Theological Union (which closed in 2013) were saddened to see the building which housed it demolished for new construction. I received my Masters of Divinity and Master of Arts in Theology degree from that institution. The block will soon house a mixed use apartment complex.

I was able to join in several games of the Washington Nationals baseball team and the very near-to-my-home Baltimore Orioles as well, with my friends Chris, Susan, Carol, Gail, Russ, Meg, Matt and more. While the Nationals are a shell of the team that won the World Series in 2019 and had a very disappointing season, the O’s improved markedly as new and younger prospects and players rose through the ranks. It was good to see such a storied franchise moving towards the top of the division again. Even though they fell short of the playoffs in 2022, 2023 looks hopeful for them. Also, with the stadium of the Baltimore Ravens equally close to my home, I was able to enjoy a pre-season Ravens game – my first in-person NFL game – with my friends Susan, Chris and Gail.

The spring and summer provided many opportunities to visit family in and around the Utica area, and to spend some days of retreat at the Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan community on retreat and to visit my alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, which was nearby. My visits to Utica also allow me to tend to the graves of family and close friends who are buried there, making sure they are clean and have some flowers planted.

Below are some of the photos which marked many of the events above, along with some from December 2021, in which I sang once again in St. Mary of Mt. Carmel Parish’s hosting of “The Jazz Nativity.” I hope and pray that you and yours were able to enjoy each other’s company this year, and that the holiday season provides further opportunity. May you know God’s blessings this season and for the coming year!

Click any image to enlarge and advance manually.