Victoria Kearney, Special to The Catholic Virginian
No sales. No door busters. No screams of, “Shop now!” In the Catholic community, it’s Advent, a quietly festive time when the faithful prepare not only themselves for the celebration of Christ’s birth, but for his return at the end of time.
At parishes throughout the Diocese of Richmond, that preparation includes outreach to their communities, as well as hosting events and celebrating and observing traditions of their own.
Although Advent didn’t begin until Dec. 3, Sts. Peter and Paul, Palmyra, began the season early with a free Thanksgiving dinner for those who weren’t traveling for Thanksgiving or who would otherwise be alone.
“We’re trying to give them a little bit of company on a festive day,” said Pam Dempsey, “We will host a turkey dinner with all the fixings and have some dancing.”
With the help of a 12-person team, parishioner Patricia Amatto coordinated the dinner. Sts. Peter and Paul served about 60 people that day, Dempsey said.
In the four weeks of Advent, parishes throughout the Richmond Diocese will begin their own observances to prepare the laity for Christmas. The Angel Tree, also called the Christmas Sharing Tree, makes an appearance at several parishes to encourage remembering those in need over the Christmas season.
The tree is set up in a prominent place, such as the church vestibule or parish hall, and decorated with paper ornaments. Each ornament has the information and suggested gifts for a child or family in need. Parishioners are asked to take home an ornament to include in their Christmas shopping.
Sts. Peter and Paul; St. Benedict, Richmond; St. Edward the Confessor, Chesterfield; Sacred Heart, Danville; Church of the Ascension, Virginia Beach; St. Ann, Ashland; Church of the Visitation, Topping, and the Chesapeake Cluster Parishes are among several churches throughout the diocese sponsoring an Angel Tree this year. Sts. Peter and Paul also has a Giving Tree to support the parish school, where teachers list supplies they need for the classroom on the backs of the ornaments for parishioners to include in their Christmas shopping.
Feeding the hungry
Part of preparing hearts for Advent includes immersion in the Christmas spirit. For several years, St. Victoria Parish, Hurt, has collaborated with New Prospect Baptist and First Baptist Church, Hurt, to build a crèche in the center of town. On the evening of Nov. 20, members of all the churches gathered at the crèche to sing Christmas carols and to usher in Advent.
“We have a very close relationship with First Prospect Baptist and also with First Baptist,” said Father Jim Gallagher, pastor of St. Victoria, “That’s a favorite tradition that we have.”
For the past 12 years, Father Gallagher has divided his time between Our Lady of Peace, Appomattox, and St. Victoria, placing much of the parish leadership on the laity. This Advent, Father Gallagher plans to highlight the laity’s importance to parish life and to the future of the Church.
“The people of Appomattox and Hurt have gotten less than 25 percent of my time over 12 years,” the priest said. “Yet, they have been getting it done. These places are lay-run faith communities.”
St. Victoria began the Advent season with a festival of Christmas lights decorated outside of the church. After the celebration, the families of the parish vested Father Gallagher for Mass to emphasize the importance of the lay community to the priesthood.
Our Lady of Peace and St. Victoria will continue their contribution to Our Daily Bread soup kitchen. Their goal for Advent is to feed 100 local children and families in need. Another Lynchburg parish, St. Thomas More (STM), also contributes to the poor of the area by delivering to 60 community food boxes and delivering gifts and Christmas stockings for 138 youth in the area.
“We will be providing each family with a Christmas Food Box, which includes non-perishable food items as well as perishable food items,” said Trish Pabis, coordinator of religious formation for K-5 and sacramental preparation at STM.
STM also hosts a Christmas party for those with special needs in conjunction with Horizon Behavioral Health, an organization that houses adults with special needs and disabilities within the Lynchburg region. Two of those homes were built on the STM grounds in 1991, and the parish has maintained a close relationship with the residents ever since.
“Our most festive event that we host for them is the Christmas party in December,” Pabis said. “Our STM hospitality committee bakes dozens of homemade Christmas cookies and icing for the residents to decorate and eat. The STM card ministry designs Christmas cards for the residents to make and give to their loved ones. The STM musical ministry plays music and leads the group in singing Christmas carols.”
“We typically have over 60 people attending this festive event including residents of these homes along with their aides. For many residents, this is the only Christmas party that they attend during the holidays.”
Outreach to the forgotten
St. Edward the Confessor Parish also opens up its spiritual home to the forgotten through “Caritas.” For two weeks in Advent, the parish hosts 30-40 homeless members of the community with a hot meal and opens up the parish community center for them to sleep. The name “Caritas” refers to the “heart” of Christ, and encourages parishioners to see the face of God in their homeless brothers and sisters.
“For about 30 years, our parish has hosted 30-40 homeless guests for two weeks in late December,” said Janis Webb, business administrator at St. Edward. “Caritas provides support services for clients while our parish provides a safe place to sleep and feeds them a hot, hearty meal in a friendly, safe atmosphere.”
Webb estimates that more than 500 members of the parish have contributed to Caritas.
“Caritas is a real opportunity for us to share as a community, as a family or as individuals, and generously offer our time in giving hospitality, meals, and shelter for people who need our support during one of the busiest times of the year,” she said.
Sacred Heart Parish, Danville, also does an outreach to the forgotten at Christmas time. On Dec. 5, the youth of the parish will gather to assemble Christmas bags containing treats and some small gift items for the inmates at Greenrock Correctional Center.
“We made 1,020 identical bags for the inmates last year, and will do the same this Advent through our religious education and youth ministry programs,” said Terrie Stone, director of religious education.
Celebrating cultural traditions
Sacred Heart also engages its Hispanic families with traditional Mexican celebrations. Each year, Sacred Heart begins a 12-day novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe, which culminates in a celebration on Dec. 12.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast begins with a procession from the original Catholic church to our current location with dancers and performers led by Father and the altar servers,” said Mary Foley, director of administration. “After the Mass, a celebration in the commons takes place with authentic Mexican food and drink and mariachi band.”
Other parishes participate in Hispanic traditions throughout the season. On Christmas Eve, St. Victoria hosts a rendition of La Pasada, which transitions the community from Advent to Christmas. The procession recalls the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and their search for an inn. After being turned away by the innkeepers, they are finally welcomed into the church for the beginning of Mass.
In honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Patrick Parish, Lexington, hosts an annual fiesta following Mass, featuring traditional music and a Mexican potluck dinner. The fiesta began about five years ago under the direction of Father Joe D’Aurora as an outreach to St. Patrick’s Hispanic families and is among many of the celebrations extended to families within the parish.
“It is a ‘small to medium’ event, in Fr. Joe’s words, but it is growing a little each year,” said Cindy Bither, administrative assistant at St. Patrick Parish. “We celebrate Mass and then go down to the church hall for a potluck dinner. One of our parishioners who owns a local Mexican restaurant provides a few authentic dishes and everyone brings something.”
To give the students a chance to celebrate Christmas early with their friends before heading home for the holidays, St. Patrick Parish will host an “Almost Christmas, Almost Midnight” Mass for about 800 students from Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Washington and Lee, and Southern Virginia University, Saturday, Dec. 9. After Mass, the students are invited to a reception with cookies and hot chocolate.
While the Richmond Diocese encourages the laity to prepare their minds and hearts for Christmas through helping the poor and celebrating cultural traditions, the Scriptures are also important to preparing our lives for the coming of Christ.
Several parishes throughout the diocese will hold lectures and spiritual reflections over the next several weeks in preparation for Christmas.
St. Edward is using Best Advent Ever — an online program from the Dynamic Catholic website. It includes short videos and daily reflections designed to help Catholics prepare for Christmas.
“We have offered other programs through them, so this worked in our parish as an additional outreach,” Webb said. “We advertise this free program in the hope we can reach more people in this fast-paced world who may find the time to sit quietly at the doctor’s office or while waiting on a child’s practice and take a moment to ‘connect into’ the real purpose of this season of preparation and anticipation.”
During the last two weeks of Advent, the Mass includes a series of “O Antiphons” announcing the coming of Jesus, intoned during the Alleluia verses prior to the Gospel. At St. Benedict, Richmond, Father Anthony Marques, pastor, leads an explanation of each antiphon during the “O Antiphons” holy hour. He combines scriptural education with prayer and exposition of the Holy Eucharist. Last year, about 50 attended the holy hour.
“Within the context of solemn exposition of the holy Eucharist, the priest provides an overview of the ‘O Antiphons,’ explaining their biblical, historical and theological significance,” Father Marques said. “Next, each ‘O Antiphon’ is prayed: The verse is chanted in Latin and English; the relevant Scripture passage is read; a period of silence is observed; and the respective verse of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ is sung.”
The parish also provides Advent Lessons by tracing the promise of the Messiah throughout the Old Testament, from the fall of humanity to the Birth of Jesus.
Advent Lessons will be held Tuesday, Dec.12; it will feature Advent and Christmas hymns sung by the St. Benedict Catholic School choir.
“Each year, students, parents, and the faculty of Saint Benedict Catholic School, along with parishioners, pack the church for this solemn event,” Father Marques said. “Following the last song, the congregation processes into the courtyard for the blessing and lighting of an outdoor Christmas tree, which remains in place throughout the Christmas season.”
However parishes observe Advent, each does so in a manner that allows parishioners to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s birth — and beyond.
“The importance of Advent is to continually see Christ being born in our day and see the good work that the lay people are doing,” Father Gallagher explained. “So, when Christmas comes along we are already bringing Christ to life through each other.”