TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Christmas eve is now less than twenty four hours away and I have just finished the first draft of my homily for Christmas. Tomorrow my public day begins at 1230pm with the official Blessing and Opening of PINELLAS HOPE II, eighty new very low cost ($300 per month) transitional apartments for homeless who have found jobs but do not yet have the money for their own totally independent living arrangement. Built with money from a grant from the State of Florida and furnished mostly by the great people of Anona Methodist Church through donations of furniture, cookware, glass and table ware, sheets and towels, etc., the amazing one room efficiency apartments are just steps from the former resident’s tents on the property of PINELLAS HOPE. The certificate of occupancy has been given and the first several people who qualified are ready to move in. What a great day to open a new form of shelter ministry – on the day before the Holy Family was told thousands of years ago, “I’m sorry, Joseph, there is no room at the Inn.”
In a few hours, at four precisely, I will offer my first Mass of Christmas at St. Rita parish in Dade City. Usually and today likely also to be a Mass for Children and Families, the first Mass on Christmas Eve has become the most attended Mass of Christmas in almost all of our parishes. This is a big change since my childhood when Midnight was the earliest one could offer and/or attend Mass on Christmas Day. Now there is a tendency in many places, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, to move even the Mass at Midnight to earlier, 10:00 pm. After the Mass it is a quick drive back to Pinellas Hope to serve dinner with the Frank Murphy family to all the residents. This year after a two year absence (more about that in a moment), I will be back at St. Jude’s Cathedral for Midnight Mass which means home and in bed around two o’clock in the morning, depending on how long I preach.
Christmas morning finds me continuing a practice I began when I first came of offering Christmas Mass in one of the jails or prisons located in the five counties of the diocese. Saturday morning will find me offering Christmas Mass, hearing confessions, and also confirming one inmate, at the Hillsborough Correctional Women’s Prison which carries a Riverview address but is closer to Sun City. It is a privilege to offer Mass for these women and to join them in prayer for their children and families who will be unable to be present to them on this special day.
The only thing different about this year from my past practice is that I used to faithfully offer a third Mass on Christmas eve, starting in Citrus County with the first, and then coming down to Hernando or Pasco or Hillsborough for the second around 800pm and often in Spanish before winding up at the Cathedral a little before midnight. When he was working outside of the diocese, I was accompanied and driven on these rounds by Father David Toups but he now has his own parish so I am alone again – thus one less Mass. Next year I will return to Citrus County. It is my love and privilege to serve five counties and I have always thought that on Christmas the bishop should imitate Santa and be everywhere (well, permit me a slight hyperbole).
My final thought is that last year on Christmas eve I was in St. Anthony Hospital. I attended Christmas eve Mass literally wrapped in swaddling clothes (blankets) and while not lying in a manger, I was in a wheelchair at the back of the chapel. Just before Mass my nephrologist had visited my room and said that my kidneys were of great concern and that dialysis was looking more likely. He ordered two tests for right after Mass, neither of which was pleasant. I cried throughout Mass, missing being among my people, angry that I was not getting better, afraid of the immediate future, scared that I would have one of my uncontrollable bowel movements right in the chapel, feeling very alone though surrounded by loving people. By the end of Mass, a certain peace had settled in, resignation had taken the place of resentment, and when being wheeled by the front entrance of the hospital on the way to the elevators, I could see the homeless gathering against the cold night air, ready to bed down near St. Vincent de Paul’s Sampson Center and an inner voice said, “stop complaining”. The tests were negative and I was discharged the day after Christmas. Dear people of God, there is always hope; we abandon it, it never abandons us. Even a bishop can be humbled and learn a lesson from time to time.
Still to come, my Christmas homily posted tomorrow on Christmas Day and some reflections on what it takes today to be a “holy family” on Sunday. Enjoy these final hours of the run-up to the annual memory of when the Word Became Flesh and dwelt amongst us.