By Mary Stadnyk | News Editor
Joyce Flood admitted to being a bit skeptical about St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Freehold, holding a Christmas Carol Festival for the very first time.
Given that people have so much to do to prepare for Christmas in terms of baking, shopping, decorating and party-going, Flood really wondered if parishioners would have any time – or interest – in taking a break from the busyness of the season to participate in an event that’s reflects on the true meaning of Christmas through the singing of Christmas carols.
Click HERE for gallery of photos from Christ Redeemer Parish, Mount Holly
Click HERE for gallery of photos from St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton
Click HERE for gallery of photos from Divine Mercy Parish, Trenton
Though Flood and fellow festival coordinator, Marty Wesiman, originally anticipated an audience of about 50 people, as word – and interest – spread about the Dec. 2 festival, the number climbed to 200 by Dec. 1. Then, it was a mad scramble around St. Robert Bellarmine on festival night when more tables and chairs needed to be set up to accommodate the more than 350 participants.
“It was amazing,” said Flood. “People sat and chatted. For them the festival was something new and different, and they had a good time.”
Parishioner Mike Barone said that although he is active in the parish’s religious education program, he and his wife do not participate much in the way of events that are socially-based. But Barone said they enjoyed the CCF and appreciated how it provided an opportunity for parishioners to come together before Christmas and for various ministries to work together.
A Growing Phenomenon
Some 5,300 children and adults gathered in 19 area parishes for the 2011 Christmas Carol Festival, which has gained momentum each year since its inception since 2007. This year’s participation numbers reflects a 40 percent increase since the inaugural year.
The award-winning program, developed by John Boucher, associate director of evangelization in the diocesan Department of Catechesis and Evangelization Ministry, and his wife, Therese, provides a break from the growing secular focus of Christmas and helps people of all ages connect with their faith during the holiday season.
The idea for Christmas Carol Festivals was born after the Bouchers noticed that Christmas songs and music are the most popular religious-themed Internet searches during the last four weeks of the year.
The Bouchers took the interest to mean that Christmas carols and songs might be used to help people connect or reconnect with their Christian heritage and with the Church and Jesus Christ. The festivals, said Boucher, are a fun and faith-filled tool for reaching out to anyone interested in the authentic meaning and music of the season. It also held great promise to effectively reach out to inactive Catholics and to younger people, they felt.
The Christmas Carol Festivals invite people to come together during Advent to sing faith-based songs such as “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.” But singing festive songs is only the beginning. While each parish adds its own flavor to the festival, common elements include Scripture readings, individual faith witnesses, shared prayer and lessons about the meaning behind the songs.
A First for Some
Besides St. Robert Bellarmine, other parishes which hosted the CCF for the first time included St. Gabriel, Marlboro, Christ the Redeemer, Mount Holly, and Sacred Heart, Mount Holly.
Hopes were high as folks began to gather at the elementary school gymnasium of Sacred Heart Parish, Dec. 18 for what organizers hope will become an annual tradition.
Merry Marcellino, assistant to pastoral administrator Marge McGinley, the driving force behind holding the festival, attributed the 168 who turned out for the parish’s first CCF on the Fourth Sunday of Advent to real interest in holding the event.
The festival was about a year in the making, she said. “It’s our first try. We wanted to do carols for a long time and after I attended the Christmas Carol Festival in St. Joan of Arc Parish (Marlton) and got a taste of it there, I really wanted to do it.
“It developed in response to the requests of parishioners who wanted it and we’re glad they came.”
The CCF in Sacred Heart had the real atmosphere of a parish social with folks of all generations participating. Young people, including members of the parish scout troop, decked the halls, led the songs and performed as the Holy Family and shepherds during the pageant portion of the festival.
The hospitality committee provided a buffet of Christmas cookies and pastries that was enjoyed by all. And there was a real focus on community prayer with those in the audience filling out prayer requests collected by the “shepherds.”
Parishioner Betty Konrad was only one of many who talked about how the day brought ‘fellowship with other parishioners” to the fore.
Konrad said, “It was a good way to get people together and have them step aside from the hustle and bustle and focus on the reason for the season.”
Along with the singing of Christmas carols, another poignant component of the CCF was hearing witness stories shared by members of the congregation.
Time for Sharing
Patty Smith, the parish secretary in St. Catharine of Siena Parish, Seaside Park, recounted a family story from 1988. It was a couple of weeks before Christmas, and Smith said she became caught up in the chaos of preparations, especially with finding the right gifts for her two small children.
During some downtime one evening, Smith said that while glancing through a catalog, she noticed a t-shirt that had a drawing of the Baby Jesus laying in his crib with the saying, “Children Need a Stable Background.”
Making the correlation between “stable” and “manger,” Smith said that saying “believe it or not sent a shock wave through me.”
Even though Smith and her husband had strong Catholic backgrounds and were intent on raising their own children in a Catholic household, she wondered if she and her husband were setting an example for their children “that Jesus should come first in our lives.”
“We were so wrapped up in the commercial side of Christmas that we forgot the reason for the season,” she said.
The following morning, a determined Smith set out to make sure her children “had a stable background” in the spiritual sense by establishing new family traditions. Throughout the year, she saw to it that the family prayed together before bed each evening and she would read children stories from the Bible.
The new Christmas morning tradition in the Smith home had the family gathering in the dining room, where the Nativity was displayed, and before the tree was lit and the gifts were opened, the family would place the figurine of the infant Jesus in the crib.
Smith smiled as she said that the tradition she started 23 years ago now continues in her daughter’s home; her daughter is married and has a child of her own.
For the first Christmas Carol Festival in St. Catharine of Siena, Smith said she handed out “Children Need a Stable Background” refrigerator magnets to all who were in attendance.
Christina Ortiz, a catechumen in the parish RCIA in Christ the Redeemer, shared the story of her journey of faith to the Catholic Church during the Dec. 9 CCF, which drew 100 people of all ages and cultural backgrounds. Christ the Redeemer is a predominantly Latino community with parishioners hailing from various Caribbean islands as well as Central and South American countries.
Two recent personal challenges in which Ortiz said her faith was tested were during the years she and her husband had trouble conceiving a child, and, then after Isabella’s birth, her having to deal with postpartum depression.
Through those two experiences, “I really started to believe in God and have faith,” said Ortiz.
Ortiz began attending Mass with her family and she eventually “reached the point” where she realized that she “was not going to Mass because of my husband and daughter.”
“I realized I was going to Mass because I wanted to go to Mass and I realized that I wanted to be Catholic,” she said. “That is what led me to RCIA.”
“The Lord spoke to me through the readings, and he has gotten me through some hard times. He’s been there for me every day, and especially with my being the mother of a toddler!” said Ortiz. “I have faith and I keep praying and believing that each day will be OK.”