Gathered in Song • A cantor leads the congregation during a 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass celebrated in the crypt chapel in Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Moorestown. Two other Masses were simultaneously being celebratred in the church proper, the school gym and cafeteria via closed-circut television. David Karas photo
Gathered in Song • A cantor leads the congregation during a 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass celebrated in the crypt chapel in Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Moorestown. Two other Masses were simultaneously being celebratred in the church proper, the school gym and cafeteria via closed-circut television. David Karas photo

Three priests. Six deacons.

Two dozen extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, 28 ushers, 21 readers, and four sacristans, not to mention multiple children’s choirs, an adult choir, a praise band, string ensemble and a cohort of organists and cantors.

To view photo gallery from Christmas Eve in Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish, click here.

To view photo gallery from Christmas Eve in Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Moorestown, click here.

To view photo gallery from Christmas Eve in Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Holly, click here.

And that doesn’t include the back-up ministers and volunteers ready to step up to the plate if called upon.

As Father Damian McElroy, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Moorestown, reads from his master list, he almost takes on the role of a general organizing his troops – or a coach discussing the positions his players will take when the game begins.

In reality, he is discussing the extensive lineup of dedicated clergy and ministers it takes to support his parish’s Christmas Masses – a significant undertaking for the small church, which sees attendance on Christmas Eve alone swell to nearly 2,000, compared to 800 on an average Sunday. That influx of faithful calls for three simultaneous Christmas Eve Masses at the prime 4 p.m. time slot, as well as an additional three later that evening and four the following day.

“We have a tiny parish church, and we have very little parking,” said Father McElroy. “It is a challenge to accommodate everyone.”

Still, he says that it is a labor of love – and one that often begins early in the fall.

Father McElroy is not alone. Pastors and clergy in parishes across the Diocese often spend several months preparing for the larger-than-normal crowds of faithful who flock to Christmas Masses. Timing is adjusted, additional worship sites are established, and ministers and clergy are lined up to lead parishioners in the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

A ‘Wonderful’ Influx

In the merged community of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony, Hamilton, pastor Msgr. Thomas N. Gervasio benefits from two large churches that are able to accommodate many Mass goers. Still, the influx for Christmas Masses demands adding a third space, in Our Lady of Sorrows School gymnasium.

“All three [worship sites] are filled,” he said, concurring with other pastors that Christmas Eve Masses remain the most popular. “It seems that they all prefer the evening before Christmas…that is when we have the pressure, so to speak.”

His parish offers several worship options Christmas Eve, as well as several the following day – including one Mass celebrated in Creole for the parish’s Haitian community.

Msgr. Gervasio said that he works with parish staff to extend a call for ministers to sign up for the Christmas celebrations.

“We put out a call on a volunteer basis,” he said. “We have good, faithful deacons,” but rounding up sufficient numbers of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, readers and ushers” can pose a challenge.

Logistics notwithstanding, he said that the flood of faithful to his parish community is heartwarming.

“The influx of so many people – parishioners, guests and people who may have been away from the church,” Msgr. Gervasio said, “it is wonderful.”

‘It Meant Something to Them’

In St. Luke Parish, Toms River, Father Robert Grodnicki, pastor, said that preparations for Christmas celebrations begin over the summer, when contractors install lighting on the church building to be activated in the days leading up to Christmas. That comes in conjunction with planning and the lining up of ministers – many of whom plan their Christmas celebrations around particular Masses.

“The deacons make themselves available – and their families come to the Masses too,” he said, adding that all of the parish deacons are present for the Christmas Eve Vigil Masses – two at 4 p.m. and one at 6 p.m. – and then return hours later for the popular Midnight Mass on Christmas morning.

While Father Grodnicki said that it is impossible to plan for precisely how many faithful might come out to the various services, each year it becomes clear that the parish couldn’t cut down the number of Masses even if it wanted to. This year, as in years past, the worship spaces were overflowing.

But that wasn’t what touched him the most.

“It wasn’t so much the (numbers); it was the reaction afterwards,” he said. “It was that they came, and they commented on the liturgy. People were coming out absolutely taken by the whole thing – with the Mass, and the music especially.”

He added, “it meant something to them.”

While the planning for Christmas Masses added to the other daily responsibilities of the parish, Father Grodnicki acknowledged the importance of occasions that draw many to the church who might not be regulars.

“With some people, this (may be) the only time we are going to see them,” he said. “We try to make it memorable for them.”

‘It Does My Heart Good’

Before offering a final blessing at the first Christmas Eve Mass, Father McElroy took a few moments to express his gratitude to those who had taken time away from their families to help serve.

He also commented on how happy he was to see the worship space – as well as two others – literally overflowing with faithful.

“I want this every Sunday,” he said.

As he shared that message with those gathered in the main church, similar, overflowing liturgies were taking place in the crypt chapel, as well as in the school gym. Still, to further accommodate the  large numbers, a closed circuit television was set up in the school cafeteria where faithful watched and fully participated in the celebration of Mass. For the reception of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers were sent into the cafeteria to administer the Sacrament.

In a conversation with The Monitor in the days after Christmas, Father McElroy shared an interaction he had following that celebration. As he stood outside greeting those leaving the church, a father came up to him with his young daughter, and encouraged her to share some news with the pastor.

“We are coming to Mass every Sunday from now on,” the young girl told Father McElroy.

“For me, that is like winning the lottery – it does my heart good,” he said. “It is what we are all about – calling people to belong, to gather, to follow.”

He said that the Christmas season is an important time for the Church.

“I am always hoping that the experience of the liturgy might touch their hearts so that they would be encouraged to return,” he said, adding that he urges his parishioners to be welcoming.

“Sometimes this is a neighbor’s child home from college, or relatives – but sometimes it is people who are just about hanging onto the faith with their fingernails,” Father McElroy said. “Christmas calls them to return, to belong again. And every year I see strange faces that do return and become familiar faces.”