Matt C. Abbott
December 10, 2009
Seven priests share Christmas memories
By Matt C. Abbott

I wanted to do a column perhaps more than one featuring favorite Christmas memories of Catholic priests. I invited a number of priests to participate, and, thus far, I've received responses from Fathers Bruce Ansems, John Hannigan, Tom Hoisington, Samuel Medley, Leo Patalinghug, Scott Courtney and James Farfaglia. Their contributions are below. I invite any Catholic clergy and religious who wish to contribute a "Christmas memory" to e-mail it to me along with the name of your diocese or community and, if possible, a photo of yourself.

(Also, I'd like to express my profound gratitude to all those who have provided me with good information, quotes, words of encouragement and prayers since I've been "online." God bless you and yours this Christmas season!)

Father Bruce Ansems
Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas


Every year during the Advent season, I pray the Lord will help me to be aware of where He wants to be born anew in my life. Sometimes I would see new life occur in one of my relationships with family members or friends, or just a new appreciation for the blessings of my life. One year while I was in seminary, it seemed like there just wasn't going to be a "new birth" in my life. But, Lord, why not this year? Had it just been a game that I had been playing in order to keep the Spirit and anticipation of Christmas fresh in my mind and spirit?

As I returned to my Mother's home for Christmas, as my father had already passed away, I was so pleased to hear that Grammy, my maternal grandmother, was going to be with us for the Christmas holidays. Our house was in the normal "week before Christmas" chaos to be expected with a good number of siblings, their children, my not being home very often, and seeing old friends and distant relatives. It was exciting... but was this all that was going to make this Christmas special this year?

As I got home from doing some grocery shopping with my mother, one of my brothers met us at the door to tell us that Grammy had not gotten out of bed and that she didn't seem to be doing very well. My Mom and I went in the guest room to check on her, and he was right. She was still in bed, she had belabored breathing, and she seemed so frail and tiny in that little bed. We called the ambulance and got ready for their arrival. They gently picked her up, as if handling a porcelain doll, and they took her to the hospital. The excitement of the Christmas holidays suddenly seemed to be taking a much more serious turn.

My mother and one of my brothers followed the ambulance to the hospital, and I made some calls to the family to let them know that Grammy had taken a turn for the worse. Once I made the calls, I went to the hospital to find my grandmother on oxygen, fluids, and a number of machines that I still don't understand. I just went over and kissed her head and let her know that I was there and that I was praying for her.

The doctor and some of the nurses had been through her room a couple of times, and the main things that I remember hearing was that she was having congestive heart failure and that it was touch and go at this point. Now it was a matter of praying, watching, and waiting. Grammy always liked having her hair brushed and she loved the song based on Isaiah 49, "I will never forget you, my people"... so that was what I did, as much as I could around the machines. Family came in and visited, and I had many great chats with them, and got little breaks from sitting by her bedside.

Christmas Eve came and I volunteered to spend it with Grammy, so that everyone else could try to have a semi-normal evening, especially the ones with children. She was agitated that evening, as she was coming in and out of consciousness. She would grasp at her intravenous and try to get rid of her oxygen mask... she was so sick she just couldn't understand what was going on. But suffice it to say, she was not amused.

I spent the evening sitting on her bedside and trying to keep her calm. I can only try to imagine how many times I sang Isaiah 49 and Christmas carols to her, brushed her hair with my hand and tell her that everything was going to be okay. A couple of times I actually had to keep my hand on her hand, so that she couldn't grab at her wrist, and tell her to leave it alone. It didn't seem to work really well as she could be a pretty determined lady. I knew she was very weak that night and it was all God's will at this point. A couple of times when she would stop breathing, I would tell God that even though I wanted her to be around for a long time, His will be done... such a hard prayer to pray when it concerns a loved one. I knew Grammy had a strong faith and would want to do God's will. But was the Lord going to ask me to have to call my family on Christmas morning to tell them that Grammy had died? Not exactly what I had hoped for in the Advent season.

There were a couple of times through that night which were definitely "touch and go," I told her I loved her, and then internally just waited on the Lord. Christmas morning dawned and there was no need to make that call to my family... thanks be to God! She had stabilized and seemed to be making a few advancements. Family came in and out throughout the day. In the late afternoon, I got a chance to go home, get cleaned up, open a few gifts, grab some supper, and get back in to the hospital.

It was on Christmas night, as I stayed with her again and she was sleeping peacefully, it hit me. I finally understood what it might have been like for Mary and Joseph in the manger. They too were gazing at their little loved one, so fragile and tiny, and knew that they were going to have to trust God's will. How many times did they sing to Him, try to ease His uncomfortable conditions, tell Him how much they loved Him, and try to reassure Him that everything was going to be okay, even in the midst of uncertainty. Life is just that precious to the one who loves. My eyes welled up with tears as the best gift of my Christmas that year had just been revealed and explained to me.

A couple of days later when Grammy was able to talk, she said that she couldn't remember very much except that every time she opened her eyes, she saw me smiling at her, singing to her, and making her comfortable... and how she somehow knew that everything would be okay.

My friends, regardless of the anxiety you may have this Christmas season about those you love, about the future, about accepting God's will, or whatever else you may be experiencing, please remember that the birth of Christ WILL make a difference again this year... and every year, if we look with the eyes of faith. Wise men seek Him still.

Father John Hannigan
Chicago and U.S. military archdioceses


My parents, my sisters and I would go to Sacred Heart Church on Christmas Eve and would attend midnight Mass with my sisters singing in the choir, and I would be an altar boy at midnight Mass and the "Shepherd's Mass," which would follow the midnight Mass.

We would open our presents in the parlor, or, as we now call it, the living room, of our home under a real live Christmas tree and around a rectangle-sized Nativity Scene that completely surrounded the Christmas tree my Dad made. The scene included not only the manger of Bethlehem, but the shepherds' hills as well, with dozens of statues depicting that holy night in Bethlehem. Our home was never decorated for Christmas until Christmas Eve. Until then, there was only an Advent wreath that was on the kitchen table. The Christmas decorations stayed up until the day after "Three Kings' Day" January 6.

We would sing Christmas carols in the neighborhood on Christmas Eve. Poppy seed strudel and pfeffernusse cookies were always Christmas favorites. There was always the big Christmas dinner ham and German potato salad on Christmas Day when our grandparents would come over. During Advent, there were the Christmas parish school music recitals and the Christmas school plays we'd attend. My father, a Knight of Columbus, and mother, an Altar and Rosary Society member, would always involve me and my siblings in delivering food baskets to the needy and helping to decorate the parish.

Also, there were those moments when the UPS truck would drive up and we were not allowed to see what he brought; it was hidden in the front closet until we opened presents on Christmas. Being in Chicago, we always had snow and cold weather as we drank our hot chocolate, listened to Bing Crosby sing Christmas carols and warmed our clothes on the oven door. It was always a merry Christmas!

Father Tom Hoisington
Diocese of Wichita


I don't have many "profound spiritual experiences" from childhood. One of the few I do have concerns Christmas. Even though my father was not Catholic and did not attend Mass with our family when I was a child, our mother faithfully took us to Holy Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. And most every Christmas we went to Midnight Mass.

I remember the drive home after Midnight Mass one year, when I was probably 8 or 9. We lived about a half hour from church, so the drive was a fairly long one. This particular year (as seemed often to be true 30 years ago, though no longer) we were enjoying a white Christmas. In fact, there were a couple of feet of snow on the ground everywhere you looked. And on this Christmas night, the moon was very close to being full, so as we looked out of the car, the night seemed very bright.

Somehow, looking at the moon, and the bright moonlit fields of the Kansas countryside, I thought I was in Bethlehem soon 2000 years before. For a child, it was a profound epiphany: a sense of connectedness with the actual events of Jesus' birth.

Father Samuel Medley, S.O.L.T

Advent and Christmas have been a great joy in Fatima Center. It seems that the season in which we enter into the childhood of God is best celebrated by children. I don't remember ever having such a joyful and celebrative Christmas. The joy of this season is that God became one of us and one with us, for "God delights to be with the children of men" (Prov 8:31). Children seem to desire mostly that you just be with them and be one with them, and that is most of the work in serving them: to empty oneself and become simple, trusting, and open enough to share together with them their frame of reference. What a delight it has been to be one with them!

Nine days before Christmas we all rose at three o'clock in the morning together and walked two miles to the nearby parish church to celebrate the Mass at dawn Aguinaldo Mass. Mysterious was a big black dog with a heavy chain-link collar, who accompanied me during these days, following me into church, assisting at Mass by my side, and even following me up to Communion. How I have delighted to work with the children as well. One time they were cleaning a huge pool of mud almost up to their knees. They were very tired and in need of a second wind. I jumped into the pool with them and tried to encourage them and give them an example of hard work. That night I sat washing their feet and dressing the wounds they got from the sharp rocks and garbage at the bottom of the pool.

Two days later I was in bed with a fever because my own wound was not cleaned well enough. In bed, while reciting the prayer of Fatima, "Most Holy Trinity," for the children, blood and water flowed out of it. Although it is perfectly explainable by my medical science, it was nonetheless a sign to me of God's Mercy. I believe that prayer to be of great value to move God in His Mercy, to push back the tide of evil, and to change human history. This was a lesson for me of the Incarnate Word, a lesson of Christmas, to the One whom becomes one with us in the mud of our human nature, taking our wounds upon himself and giving to us only graces and mercy. Hope you have a holy Christmas and a Blessed New Year.

Father Leo Patalinghug
Archdiocese of Baltimore


In France, a 16th century monastery. Christmas Eve Mass, a mixture of chant in French and Latin. Candlelight. Simple but dignified manger scene. Since I was kinda' missing my family, I prayed to be spiritually connected to them and to my spiritual family. God answered my prayers. I was feeling rather 'Jesus-fied'! But actually, every Christmas I sense God's spirit working that way.

Father Scott M. Courtney
Diocese of Lincoln


My favorite Christmas memory would have to celebrating the octave of Christmas in Rome with Pope John Paul II in 1996. We went to midnight Mass at St. Peter's and celebrated and toured the Eternal City with the Universal Church. It showed how universal the Church is and what an honor it really is to be a Catholic. Long live the papacy!

Father James Farfaglia
Diocese of Corpus Christi


We all have wonderful memories of how we have celebrated Christmas in the past. On this Christmas, we will relive those memories, create new ones, and cherish our fondest memories in the recesses of our hearts. The joy and excitement of opening Christmas presents; sampling the delicious foods and deserts that our mothers and grandmothers had prepared; the decorating of the tree; the setting up of the manger scene; the singing of Christmas carols; and of course, the gathering together of family members and friends, all make up the wonderful memories of Christmas.

I have many beautiful memories of Christmases past. From early childhood, I remember how our entire family always attended Christmas morning Mass at our parish. Inevitably, somewhere along in the liturgy, the choir would sing Silent Night. As the beautiful hymn filled the church with harmony, my grandmother would begin to weep uncontrollably. Once, as a child, I asked my grandmother why she wept so much. "God loves us so much," was her immediate answer.

This Christmas memory of my grandmother fills me with sadness at times, but then I remember how she died just a few years ago. As she lay in bed taking her last breath, she said, "Dear God, I love you." I am sure that now in heaven she contemplates the eternal face of the God made man born in Bethlehem.

There is another Christmas memory that fills me with profound joy: the memory of the first time that I celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as a newly ordained priest. Yes, I was given the amazing privilege of celebrating my first Mass on Christmas morning after having received the inestimable gift of the Catholic priesthood on December 24. My family and friends gathered together with me in Rome at a beautiful basilica dedicated to our Blessed Mother, as I celebrated my first Mass at an altar containing relics from the manger of Bethlehem.

Most of our memories of Christmas are beautiful indeed; however, many of us may indeed have memories of Christmas past permeated with sadness, times of difficulty and distress. However, Jesus, the God of love will surely come to us in our grief and fill us with his consolation and peace.

The tribulations of the here and now can be met with a profound sense of joy because we are convinced of the One whom we have come to know through the gift of faith. True disciples of Christ live in the present with joy because they have experienced the forgiveness of past sins. Like oil and water, joylessness and Christianity do not mix. Despite the many challenges of the present, true disciples can look forward to the Christmases of the future with intense hope.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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