Grinchy year won't keep Christmas from coming
By Albert de Zutter
Catholic Key Editor
One can see in our custom of exchanging good wishes and gifts during the Christmas season the clear signs of people expressing love of neighbor. Charitable giving usually peaks during the Christmas season; our hearts swell with good will toward one another; we see more clearly that God is good and deserving of our love.
The root cause of these feelings and deeds of love, for the Christian, is the fact that during the Christmas season we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ. We express our joy that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us." But we celebrate it not merely as a historical fact but as an ongoing reality. Jesus continues to live among us. He is the kingdom of God that lives among us and within us.
Even those who do not profess belief in Jesus feel an almost irresistible urge to express good will to one another during the Christmas season. In fact, our custom of exchanging gifts at this time was adopted from existing pagan custom. Could that be a sign of incipient faith?
The phenomenal thing is that the Christmas spirit occurs year after year, despite the fact that some years deserve to be called annus horribilis, to paraphrase Queen Elizabeth of England. Well, this year may have been a horrible one for the English royal family; it certainly was for the Catholic Church in America, and - with the corporate scandals, the grim economy, the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the "war on terrorism" and the threat of war with Iraq - it has been a horrible year for the United States of America.
And yet, hard as all these Grinchy realities have tried to keep Christmas from coming, in the words of Dr. Seuss, "it came." (We're going a little way out on a limb here, as this is being written more than a week ahead of time.)
The annus horribilis for the Catholic Church in America dawned in January and continues to this day. Reforms adopted by the U.S. bishops and approved by the Vatican should go a long way toward preventing a repetition of the deplorable situations that have been revealed, but the full story is yet to be played out.
Experts bemoan the fact that the scandals have weakened the Church's moral authority; that it has become more difficult to preach the gospel, to preach justice, to get a hearing for the Catholic point of view. That is one of the consequences of the scandals that we will have to live with for some time.
Another consequence is that some few Catholics jumped ship, deciding they didn't want to belong to a church in which such criminal behavior can occur. Some few have withheld financial support, although by and large not at the parish level. Both these positions are based on the mistaken premise that the church is identified with its administrators - and not just with its administrators in general, but with those few inept, morally blind and/or negligent administrators whose complicity allowed the criminal behavior of a relatively small number of serial offenders to continue.
Bad as the year has been on the level of headline-making, on another level the church has continued to be the church and Catholics have continued to act as Catholics. The true spirit and work of the church have gone on unabated.
Our culture tries to reduce the church to a small number of hot-button issues, chief among them at the moment the sex abuse scandals. But even in the absence of sex abuse scandals, the news about the Catholic Church tends to revolve around its teachings on sexual morality, abortion, priestly celibacy, and women's ordination.
None of these things define the church or what it means to be a Catholic. Our church and our faith are defined more by the mission it has undertaken in obedience to the commandments that encompass all the others - to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is an undertaking that occupies Catholics from childhood to old age and beyond through their bequests.
The Catholic Church is found in food kitchens that feed the hungry and in food pantries that make it possible for families to eat when their resources run dry. It is found in refugee camps, staving off desperation by providing food, medicine and hope to destitute men, women and children.
The Catholic Church is 600 grade school children in Kansas City confronting state legislators on behalf of foster children. It is found in missions all over the world where dedicated priests, religious and lay people lay their lives on the line and sometimes lose their lives to bring hope, relief and justice to people who have no voice.
The Catholic Church is found in the pope and the bishops standing for peace in a world too willing to go to war. It is found in the Church's support of immigrants and its declarations that every human being has a right to seek refuge regardless of citizenship.
The Catholic Church is found in its care for victims of the scourge of AIDS at home and around the world. It is found in the U.S. bishops and Network nuns lobbying for just laws in Washington, D.C., and in the thousands of Catholics supporting Catholic Conferences lobbying on the state level. And it is found in the vast majority of priests who continue to serve faithfully day after day.
The Catholic Church and Catholics reach out, in short, wherever we see a need, regardless of religious affiliation. A Kansas City newswoman sees a 9-month-old baby girl in the Gaza Strip born with two club feet and two club hands. Six months later, that Palestinian baby and her parents are in Kansas City and the baby has had a delicate operation that has given her movement in her shoulders and straightened her legs to give her a chance to walk. The operation was done at St. Joseph Health Center, a Catholic hospital, at no cost to the Muslim family. Specialists donated their services. The vice president in charge of strategic planning at the hospital is a Muslim. "The cost of such a procedure was never a factor," she said.
After the Grinch stole all the presents from Whoville to stop Christmas from coming, all the people of Whoville joined hands and sang in celebration anyway. Maybe Christmas is not just about presents, the Grinch mused. Maybe it's about something more.
The examples of the Catholic spirit tell us that the Catholic Church is not just about the hot-button issues that make the news. It's about something more.
- A. de Z.