Cristina D’Averso-Collins, director, students Emily Loscapio, Lauren Friedman, Erin Mulligan, John Spinelli, and Father Mark Nillo chaplain, set up the nativity scene to remind students and faculty of the “Reason for the Season” at Monmouth University, West Long Branch. Courtesy photo
Cristina D’Averso-Collins, director, students Emily Loscapio, Lauren Friedman, Erin Mulligan, John Spinelli, and Father Mark Nillo chaplain, set up the nativity scene to remind students and faculty of the “Reason for the Season” at Monmouth University, West Long Branch. Courtesy photo
" On the First Sunday of Advent, almost all 300 of the ornaments were taken! "

“The Magic of Christmas is not in the presents but in His presence.”

During the month of December, we often see this quote or “Jesus is the reason for the season” on Christmas cards featuring the Nativity scene, in signage outside of Christian churches, even on car magnets as we hustle to and from the many places this joyful, yet busy, time of year brings us.

The season of Advent provides the opportunity to prepare our minds and hearts for Christmas. This time of prayerful preparation offered during the liturgical season of Advent reminds us of the need to be present as we await the coming of Christ’s presence at Christmas.

Being “present” can take on several different meanings, but for parishes and schools in the Diocese, being present during the season of Advent represents sharing the gift of oneself with others; those who may be sick, lonely, homebound or in need during the holiday season.

With COVID-19 concerns still at the forefront of holiday planning, the faithful have found safe alternatives to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy this holiday season by “reaching out” to those who may feel alone or forgotten during Advent and Christmas.

Seasonal Outreach

The  generosity and spirit of giving is prevalent during the season of Advent as parishes sponsor food drives, giving trees and adopt-a- family projects.  Organizations, such as The Mount Carmel Guild of Trenton, Visitation Home, Mercy Center, the CYO, Good Counsel Homes and Catholic Charities, are often the recipients of a parish’s goodwill and charitable spirit during Advent.

“On the First Sunday of Advent, almost all 300 of the ornaments were taken!  Parishioners of St. Rose (Belmar) are all so generous!” Msgr. Edward Arnister, pastor, offered.

During the season of Advent, the religious education classes in St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton, complete family projects that center on service and the corporal works of mercy. Whether donating items to toy drives, visiting someone who is lonely, helping prepare and serve meals for organizations that feed the hungry, the parish youth are called to grow in their faith as they prepare for Christmas.

In Lawrenceville, the St. Ann School PTA is hosting a Christmas party, not for their own school community, but for the children from HomeFront, a local organization whose mission is to end homelessness in Central New Jersey. Homefront aims to lessen the immediate pain of homelessness while helping families become self-sufficient.

In the upcoming weeks, St. Ann School students will donate presents to the Advent Day of Gift Giving that culminates in a Christmas Party Dec. 17, where children who are currently seeking shelter at HomeFront will be able to “shop” for presents for their family in the school’s gymnasium.  While the students will not be physically attending the party,  their presence in donating items for the holiday party gives the gift of dignity to a homeless child, who will be able to then, in turn, give gifts to their loved ones at Christmas.

The Parish of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Whiting, is aware of the importance of being present during the holiday season, so much so that the Knights of Columbus Post 9582 recently raised more than $4,000 for the “Send a Hero Home for the Holidays” initiative. The funds collected will be able to cover transportation costs for military personnel to go home for the holidays. Neighboring Knights of Columbus Council Post 6522 from St. Pius X Parish, Forked River, also donated more than $500 to this cause.

Visiting friends and family is often synonymous with the season and Father John C. Garrett, pastor, Resurrection Parish, which includes the worship sites of St. Casimir Church, Riverside, and Holy Name Church, Delran, was determined to begin visiting members of his parish family once visits became permissible again.

“I wanted to start visiting the homebound during the season of Advent and Lent,” he explained, “It is just reaching out and offering to be present to the parishioners.  I want them to know that just because they are not physically with us they are still part of the parish.”

He recently visited a parishioner, and “just spent time talking with her.” He also celebrated the Sacrament of the Sick and plans to continue visiting the parishioners who are open to a visit from their parish priest.

Spreading Joy

In many cases, being physically present with those homebound, in nursing homes, hospitals or assisted living facilities is not a reality once again this year, so parish organizations and schools have looked to share their prayers and holiday cheer through holiday cards and charitable giving.

Maureen Tuohy, principal, Our Lady of Sorrows School, Mercerville, explained that her students will be sending holiday greetings to a local nursing home via a school parent who works in the facility. To provide financial assistance to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), an organization that relies on the generosity of donations during the season of giving, the school will be hosting a dress down where, for a monetary donation, students may ditch their uniforms and don their pajamas for the day.

Students in Donovan Catholic High School volunteer in St. Joseph Parish cemetery and clean up the grounds preparing for the arrival of Wreaths Across America, an organization that places wreaths on the headstones of veterans at Christmas.

Similarly, the Rosary-Altar Society of the Cohort 9 parishes, which consists of Our Lady of Good Counsel, West Trenton, and Incarnation-St. James, Ewing, will gather after Mass on Dec. 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to send holiday greetings to members of a local nursing home.

The middle school students in the religious education program in St. Gabriel Parish, Marlboro, will partner with “Friends of JJ,” a local non-profit that aims to bring hope and happiness to children and families affected by pediatric diseases. The foundation was created by Brenna and Chris Messana, who with the help of their family created the foundation in 2014 in memory of their brother, JJ. A graduate of Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, JJ was 27 years old when he passed away after battling pediatric cancer for eight years. 

The students will make Christmas cards that will be included in the organization’s Smile Boxes to be delivered by the organization to children in hospitals in N.J., N.Y. and Pa. who are battling cancer this holiday season in the hope of spreading a little holiday joy to those who are sick.

The Monmouth University Catholic Campus Ministry also spread seasonal joy Nov. 30 when the group, along with Father Mark Nillo, chaplain, and Cristina D’Averso-Collins, director, set up the campus Nativity outside of the Student Center. Now, as students hurry in between classes finishing up before the winter break, they will see this physical presence and reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.

Advent is a time of joyful waiting; a time of preparation for the arrival of Jesus, the greatest gift ever given, our Emmanuel, God with us.  As illustrated by the faithful in the Diocese, during Advent our concentration should focus not on presents, but on our presence and how these four weeks allow us to share the gift of ourselves with others and bring hope, love, joy and peace to the world. In doing so, we prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas and the Incarnation, the birth of Christ and his presence in the world.