From Good Will to Faith

The Christmas Masses - A Test Case

Fr Peter Brock

In  November 2001 the call went out from the National Council or Priests for extracts on the topic From Good Will to Faith. They asked for them to be delivered to the NCP by 31 December 2001.

I thought I might have a go at putting some thoughts together, so I invited some neighbouring Parish Priests to meet over morning tea and toss the idea around.

Being that time of the year, we hit upon the idea of how each of us saw that challenge in the context of the Christmas Masses. Since that discussion I have also flagged the subject with some Diocesan Directors of Clergy Life and Ministry, and the following remarks are the fruit of all that discussion and reflection.

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{xtypo_sticky}You know what the Christmas Masses are like.{/xtypo_sticky}

At the Vigil Masses there are hundreds of people, either in the church with kids all over the sanctuary under your feet, or outdoors in an atmosphere between prayerful and picnic. Midnight Mass has few kids, but they and some adults are bleary-eyed and yawning. There’s also the odd drunk. In the morning you wonder where they keep coming from. Once again there are many people you don’t recognise.

Of course you see at each Mass many active parishioners (especially sacristans, musicians, readers, servers, communion ministers, collectors …). You recognise family members home for Christmas, others who don’t usually come to Mass at weekends, non-Catholic family members and lots of strangers. Even in the buzz and energy of the evening, and the sometimes tired, flat feeling of the morning Masses, you sense that there is still a percentage (50% …? more?  less?) of the kids from your parish Catholic school who are not there, and who will not be coming to Mass this year, even for Christmas. (Yes, you tell yourself at the Vigil Mass, some of them will have gone on holidays, a couple might turn up at Midnight Mass or in the morning, but …). On the other hand, you are happily surprised to recognise some couples you married during the year, and you see a family you got to know because of a bereavement.

As you look at the congregation, you are aware of the “magnifying glass” effect of Christmas – happy people are especially happy at Christmas; people who are lonely, sad, bereaved, etc. feel these things more intensely at Christmas. At Holy Communion you see parents holding the child born this year – you see their wonder and joy. And you see the red eyes of those coming to Christmas Communion on their own for the first time.

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I heard of  a priest who began the Vigil Mass by remarking morosely to the congregation: “It’s nice to see you all here tonight. Pity we don’t see you here every week”.

While from a “PR” point of view it’s a disastrous thing to say, I think we can sympathise with his sentiments.

You have hundreds of people in front of you at the Christmas Masses. Insofar as we can judge these things, there are some who are saints, with a deep faith that they live out in full communion with the church. There are lots of people whose faith is more shaky, and whose communion with the church is more spasmodic. There are some who are there only for cultural reasons or because, in their family, it’s the line of least resistance. They would really rather not be there, and given half a chance, they wouldn’t be.

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{xtypo_quote}Here are my hopes and my strategies at the Christmas Masses.
After the opening hymn and sign of the cross I say something like this:{/xtypo_quote}

{xtypo_rounded3}“I’d like to say a warm welcome to everyone here tonight. Lots of you are regular members of our parish community. Some of you are family members who live elsewhere and are home for Christmas. Some of you are not Catholics, but you are here to celebrate Christmas with other members of your family – you honour us with your presence. Some of you aren’t here regularly, but it just wouldn’t be Christmas for you unless you came to church today. So, a very warm welcome to you all.”{/xtypo_rounded3}

I find I am energised by the challenge of the Christmas Masses (and drained by them afterwards), so during the Masses I usually feel alert and alive. I try to combine the seriousness and solemnity of the feast with an easy informality – and this equation varies from Mass to Mass.

When it comes to the homily I feel that, with the crowd (and, usually, the heat) it especially needs to be concise.

I begin by reflecting back to the congregation who they are. So I mention that there are some here who have been married this year, or who have just successfully completed exams, or who are holding their first child – and there are some here who have been dreading this Christmas because of the absence (especially if it’s for the first time) of someone they love.

I then speak about the mixture of joy and sadness in the Christmas story itself – the birth of a child with its “glory to God and peace on earth” on the one hand and, on the other, the fact that Jesus was poor, homeless, a refugee …

Without quoting Leo the Great by name, I base my homily on his teaching about how Jesus became human so that he could make us divine. At the morning Mass, after reading the Prologue to John’s Gospel, I talk about how the words “he dwelt among us” mean literally that “he pitched his tent among us” – he made himself at home in our back yard.

At the end of Mass I thank those who have helped with the Mass (readers, musicians, servers, sacristans etc.) and thank them for their ministry throughout the year. (My purpose here is twofold – not only to thank the people but also to remind those who attend less frequently that all this happens here each weekend). Then, just before the final blessing, I wish all of us a very happy Christmas and safe travelling for all who will be doing so.

* * * * *

I resonate strongly with the words of Jesus about not “breaking the crushed reed or quenching the smouldering flax”.

I told you of the priest who grumbled that “it’s a pity we don’t see you here every week”. I heard of a priest who, last Christmas, singled out the children crowded around his feet at the Vigil Mass and got those of them who come to Mass every Sunday to stand up, and he then invited the congregation to applaud these children.

Again, while we might privately want to applaud them and their families ourselves, I feel that such a gesture will certainly alienate some of the non-regulars. If the fringe-dwellers – those who seriously tossed up whether to go to one last Christmas Mass this year or not – are embarrassed or humiliated at Mass, if they leave their Christmas Mass feeling bad, hasn’t a bridge been burnt, hasn’t a crushed reed been broken or a smouldering flax extinguished?

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For a final comment, can I change tack, or go quite left-field.

Another biblical saying that grabs me is “the Lord hears the cry of the poor”.

As we go around our parishes, we hear many devout, good parents in their 50s, 60s and 70s who grieve that their adult offspring no longer practise their faith. We often hear the words, or we say them ourselves by way of comfort, “all that can be done now is to pray for them”.

All over the country parents are praying for their children, and in many hearts this prayer is intensified at Christmas. There is much sadness and pain when parents know that, yet again, their children won’t be going to Mass this Christmas.

Where are these prayers going? Where is the faith of these parents going?

Perhaps, like much of Australia’s rainfall, they are going into some subterranean artesian basin, where some future generation will draw on them, finding a surprising new water-source of prayer and faith.

We know that the Good News will not be extinguished. We know that the Lord hears the cry of the poor.

Somehow our celebration of Christmas (and of all that we do – funerals, weddings, weekday Mass, the lot!) - the liturgy, the homily, the vitality of the congregation (including the priest) – all these things should be magnetic, drawing people into eucharistic communion.

Peter Brock
Executive Officer
National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry
30 July 2002

  • Created: 25 August 2008
  • Modified: 25 April 2009