During the Advent and Christmas season of 2004, the Holy Spirit provided adventures both on the road and at home.
I led two parish missions with Sr. Anna Tantsits, IHM, during the second and third weeks of Advent, as part of the Franciscan Ministry of the Word at Bethany Ministries.
The first was for St. Bernadette's in Butner, North Carolina, at the invitation of Sr. Carol Loughney, IHM, who pastors the parish. The mission was in English, but I did read the Gospel for the feast of the Immaculate Conception in Spanish on the closing night.
Besides the morning and evening services, we visited a teen-ager in prison who asked to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was a surprise to all of us when we discovered that it was his first confession.
We also participated in a novena in preparation for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe which included walking from one home to another in a trailer park, singing and praying the rosary in Spanish, playing the Ave Maria on the violin, and feasting on hot tamales (and they were hot!).
I was deeply moved when I received a Christmas card from the young man we visited in prison. He penciled this note, "Thank you for your visit, it was much needed." I used the card as a part of my Christmas homily, reflecting on how we need to have empty hands and open hearts if we are to receive the joy of Christmas.
The next week we were in Williamston, NC at Holy Trinity Parish, which is pastored by Sr. Kieran Williams, IHM. It is the only Catholic parish in the county, and its people include Mexicans, Peruvians, families from the Philippines and people of European and African descent. The mission began on Saturday, with a bi-lingual retreat. In the morning, Anna spoke to those who understood English in one room, while I spoke to those who only understood Spanish. In the afternoon, we switched. We were grateful for the help of a professional translator.
The day concluded with a service of Reconciliation for both groups, but the translator had gotten sick, so the service had to be translated by two teen-agers who were attending the retreat.
The celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe began with singing, readings and the rosary at 10 PM on Saturday. I celebrated Mass in Spanish at midnight - a first for me, since my knowledge of Spanish had consisted of being able to sing Spanish hymns and Taizé chants. The church was packed with families. Many little boys were dressed as Juan Diego, and little girls were dressed as the Virgin Mary. I managed to read the Spanish from the Sacramentary, but some of the Mexicans said it was with a distinctly French accent. The homily was translated line by line by one of the members of the parish.
On Sunday morning we celebrated Mass in English, and during the evenings we traveled to four different towns for gatherings at "house churches."
On Monday, we did a mini retreat for the youth of the parish at the "Parish Home" located in a place called "Beargrass".
On Tuesday, we went to Jamesville, but it felt like we were in Peru.
On Wednesday, we traveled to Windsor, but it seemed like we were in the Philippines.
And on Thursday, we visited Robersonville, but we might as well have been in Mexico. The last evening was spent with some of the poorest families of the parish. We used puppets, the violin and Taizé chants in Spanish to preach the Good News, and our only translator was a nine year old boy.
After returning to Middleburgh, I helped the local pastor with some of the Christmas liturgies. During the Mass on Christmas day one of the parishioners had a heart attack in the third pew. Someone called 911 and there were several people who cared for her as the Mass went on.
Just as I was saying the words, "this is my body, which will be given up for you," the EMT's arrived with a stretcher and oxygen to take the woman to the hospital. They wheeled her out during the greeting of peace, after we had prayed the Our Father for her and with her.
It was a luminous teaching of the deep meaning of the Body of Christ, and when the local pastor asked me for help on December 26th, the incident became a homily for the feast of the Holy Family.