Bishop O’Connell preaches about Advent and the Order of Malta during the Dec. 3 Mass. Jennifer Mauro photo
Bishop O’Connell preaches about Advent and the Order of Malta during the Dec. 3 Mass. Jennifer Mauro photo

Every year for Advent, the Knights and Dames of Malta gather with their chaplains for Mass and prayerful reflection in preparation for Christmas.

This year, due to pandemic restrictions, these faithful men and women came together in a new way – via a livestreamed Mass celebrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

“The message we need is a message of hope. That we have Christmas coming, which is always uplifting, but with the hope that we get over the hump of COVID and move on,” said Bob Tanzola of St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish, Spring Lake, who with his wife, Karen, attended the Dec. 3 Mass celebrated in the Assumption Chapel at the Lawrenceville Chancery.

Karen Tanzola agreed, saying, “The pandemic has really made a lot of people feel depressed, and we shouldn’t feel depressed at this time, we should have a feeling of Jesus’ Birth again. It should be uplifting, and it hasn’t been for so many people.”

The Tanzolas, Order of Malta co-hospitallers (area facilitators) for the Diocese of Trenton, were among seven members in attendance, with Knights and Dames from Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties tuning in online through diocesan media outlets.

In his homily, Bishop O’Connell preached on how Advent “is not simply the four weeks before Christmas … but the expanse of our entire lives leading into eternity.”

“We prepare ourselves for the commemoration of Christ coming to us in history in Bethlehem,” he preached. “His coming to us in mystery each and every day in the Church …  and his coming in majesty at the end of time. History, mystery, majesty. Those are the three words we should keep in mind when we think about the season of Advent.”

Advent, Bishop O’Connell said, is a time for a deeper longing and anticipation for Christ. “We are invited by the Church to ponder the Word of God given to us each Sunday … so that our lives can sense and feel and mirror the great mystery of God among us. Emmanuel – God is with us. The Incarnation – the Word made flesh.

“Advent reminds us that we must be ready to meet the Lord at any and every moment of our lives,” he said. “It is really a time for opening our eyes, focusing our vision, paying careful attention to God’s presence among us.”

Dame Nancy Graebe said presence is something she has been missing during the COVID-19 pandemic – that of community in the church pews, and in receiving the Eucharist.

“I will never take for granted again being able to go to Mass and Communion. That was a real awakening,” said Graebe, who serves on the order's Board of Councillors.

“It made me think about the early Christians and people who are persecuted in countries where they can’t receive or go to Mass. Imagine if that was your entire life – if you had to hide to practice your faith. That was a new perspective for me,” said Graebe, who attended the Mass with her husband, Dr. Robert Graebe. The couple attend St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel.

The Order of Malta, a lay religious order established in the early 1100s, pledges to defend the Catholic faith and serve the poor. The order is active in 120 countries, running hospitals and ambulance corps, operating refugee camps, delivering disaster relief in the wake of natural disasters, staffing day care centers and nursing homes and ministering aid in local soup kitchens, prisons and pro-life centers. The order has permanent observer status at the United Nations.

Reflecting on the order’s twofold purpose, Bishop O’Connell said, “The mission remains timeless … it’s always valid, and it’s especially timely now in this particular period of human history. Despite the tremendous advances of civilization, the world has never known so many poor, so many sick, and so many suffering. That’s even before the COVID pandemic struck. And despite the tremendous increase in membership, the Church has never known so many assaults on the integrity of its teaching.

“These two elements of the Knights and Dames of Malta’s mission have been there since the foundation of the order for sure, and so we carry those ideas, those concepts and efforts …. with great confidence, with great joy and with great grace from God,” he continued. “What the order does to meet the circumstances and challenges of the present day is to depend, for its very life, upon men and women who are motivated by Christ, who are motivated by the teachings of the Church. Men and women who see and hear the face and voice of Christ in the poor and suffering.

“Men and women who are willing to stand up and be counted in their public as well as their private lives as disciples of the master … and citizens of this world yet in service to the Kingdom of God,” he said.