The month, with the shortest days and the least amount of natural light, also seems to bring with it the nights of the most light and human gatherings of faith: December, with its gatherings and processions at night leading up to the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe; following right away are the novenas (nine days) of prayer and processions preparing for the celebration of the Birth of Christ: “Las Posadas” for our Hispanic brothers and sisters, and “Simbang Gabi” for our Filipino families. These gatherings all reflect the devotional and liturgical custom of praying for nine days in preparation for a great feast. And, in the midst of all of this, the Church soon prays at evening prayer the so-called “O Antiphons,” which are the prophetic prayers of the prophets pleading, as it were, for the coming of the Messiah.
The days of December, with its processions and prayers, are powerful days for all of us and can truly provide an oasis of prayer and closeness to God in the midst of all of the activities of this month. These processions and prayers have their roots in the Franciscan missionaries who taught the peoples and the families of the New World – in song, drama and prayer – the beauty and mysteries of our Faith in human form in a way that they could be lived and relived for generations to come. That is what one experiences in these Christmas novenas. That is what I learned from the first Hispanic families that I knew when we trudged through the snow, ice and cold in Decatur, Illinois – candles and rosaries in hand – to relive the drama of the journey of the Holy Family to Bethlehem, being reminded how Joseph and Mary were refused lodging, only finally to be welcomed. That is the story, hymns and prayers of “Las Posadas.” My Irish Catholic faith heritage was certainly strengthened by the living examples and faces of those who reenacted the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.
I remembered those first families that I knew in Decatur years ago when I was praying in Santa Ana this past week for Our Lady of Guadalupe. I saw the preparations for “Las Posadas” this coming week, and Simbang Gabi, as well. I recall that “Las Posadas” was the first event held at Christ Cathedral after the Diocese would call the campus home. When we are in the midst of any theoretical concept or debate, it helps for all of us to know the human face and side of the words we use. I am grateful to know so many immigrant families from all over the world that I meet here in our Diocese, and especially to know them when we can converse and pray together. It reminds me of the distant stories that I heard from my grandparents’ families of the reception and welcome, or lack thereof, of the Irish families who came to farm central Illinois. They came with hope for a new life, but were often met with the attitudes and hostilities of nativism and xenophobia, even years ago: Such things as “NINA” or “No Irish need apply.”
In praying and visiting with so many families over these weeks, I certainly sense apprehension and concern, from the tears of an elderly woman, to the young. Having been privileged to be the Chair of CLINIC these past three years (The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.), I know how the Bishops’ Conference – by CLINIC and its 250+ affiliates helps so many people work through the tangle of immigration laws and forms so that they may “come out of the shadows” to fully contribute to our society here in the United States as our ancestors have had the chance to do.
The “Processions of December” are really processions of humanity and faith – looking to God joined together as family and friends. As the Body of Christ, when we are present to and pray with our families here in the county, we really give to them a sense of hope and that they are not alone. I have been blessed with the friendship of Archbishop José Gomez these past 11 years. We were together in the Province of San Antonio, and now together in the Province of Los Angeles. It was a blessing to minister together with him to so many families then and now. When he was the Chair of the USCCB Committee on Immigration I was the Chair of CLINIC. His reflections mirror mine exactly, and my meetings and prayer with our families here in Santa Ana and elsewhere reflect this reality. He recently said, upon being elected as the Vice President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, that “the important thing is, in the United States, we find the solution to help people move, respecting the rights of every country to protect their borders. Movements of peoples are happening all over the world.”
For example, I remember well one family who I knew in another state who has a young family, yet were fearful of traveling a long distance for fear of being stopped. They are not criminals, and have tried repeatedly to have their situation rectified, but because of the challenge of the current complex of immigration laws, simply cannot. They have tried. So, they live in fear and in the shadows. This reflects the words of Archbishop Gomez when he says that, “Men and women are worried and anxious, thinking about where they can run and hide. This is happening tonight in America. We need to be people of peace, people of compassion. Tonight we promise our brothers and sisters who are undocumented – we will never leave you alone.”
In the end of his interview he says that “Immigration is families. And family is the foundation of society. Catholics need to understand that and of course, starting with the Holy Family; they migrated because they were in a challenging situation.” The families that I am journeying with and praying with these days certainly teach me that in many ways.
I remember gratefully the same Dominican Sisters in Springfield, Illinois who taught the families of St. Agnes parish the story of Christmas and the Holy Family, also taught us the marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Catholic means “universal,” and that we are Catholic before all else. The universal nature of our Faith is very clear here in our Diocese, and reminds us to pray together and know and walk with our brothers and sisters from all over the world: especially as we sing and pray in these next days: “Venite Adoremus” – “O Come Let us Adore Him, Christ the Lord.”