Arlington, Va., Dec 14, 2008 (CNA) - It’s a sight to see: a real, live Santa Claus on his knees, hands folded, inclining his head reverently toward statues of the Holy Family. This is how one Virginia man celebrates Christmas. For 63 years he has devoted himself to teaching children about the true meaning of the holiday season.
After kneeling in front of the nativity, John Buckreis becomes “maestro Santa” — leading children and their parents not in “Jingle Bells” or “Up on the Housetop,” but in a verse each of “Oh Come, All ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.”
In case you think you’re having a Christmas hallucination brought on by too much eggnog or an overabundance of holiday films, rest easy. This is just how they do Christmastime at the Merrifield Garden Center just outside the Beltway in Merrifield at Lee Highway and Gallows Road in Virginia.
Rather, this is how Buckreis does Christmastime. The Annandale man’s approach to Santa Claus “as the modern-day St. Nicholas” has kept generations of families returning to the jolly old elf’s garden center home for nearly 30 years.
The 78-year-old tries not to turn his Christian message into a lecture or an in-your-face religious experience, but instead imparts his message subliminally, using “Santa’s Alphabet Calendar” instead of an Advent one, and mixing religious songs with the secular. If the kids have deeper questions about the true meaning of Christmas, they can look to mom and dad for answers.
“I turn it over to the parents,” said Buckreis, a parishioner at St. Michael Parish in Annandale. “I’m forcing the parents to become involved in Christmas and they love it. They want it.”
“This is the real Santa,” said one of those parents, Lisa Davis, who has brought her two boys to Merrifield for the last six years. “He makes you believe from the time he walks out until the time you leave. He includes Jesus into his performance. That’s what the real meaning of Christmas is.”
Let’s be real here, though. Most kids wait in line — sometimes for hours — not to talk about the New Testament, but so they can climb into Santa’s sleigh with their Christmas lists, eyes wide in anticipation that their conversation will lead to a toy-filled Christmas morning. That, after all, is their right as children — and part of the excitement of the season. But as they slide off his knee, Santa has two things ready for them — a lollipop and a holy card.
“No other place does that,” said Andrea Albanese, a parishioner of St. James Parish in Falls Church, who has brought her children to see Santa for the last five years. “It’s pretty counter-cultural.”
For 63 years — since he was 14 — Buckreis has breathed a Christian spirit into Santa Claus, beginning in the Buffalo orphanage he called home. In a homemade suit of dyed cloth and cotton balls, “I was considered a very, very ugly Santa Claus,” he said. He went door-to-door in wealthier neighborhoods, serenading households with Christmas songs in exchange for donations of used toys.
The unique St. Nicholas arrived in Northern Virginia in 1966, where he appeared at various small businesses throughout the area. But it was Merrifield Garden Center in the mid-1970s that offered him space — their entire warehouse from the end of October to the end of January — and complete creative control over his program and environment. Every year just before Halloween, the head elf re-creates his house in time for his debut at the beginning of Advent.
The Garcia family, including Kyle, 9, Miranda, 8, and Kaylie, 2, all parishioners of St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville, flocked to see Santa Claus last weekend. Not only has their mother, Michelle, been bringing them since the oldest was 2, but she herself used to climb on his lap — and there are photos to prove it.
Santa gives a reminder of the real reason behind the December holiday, Kyle said while waiting in line.
“Some people just think it’s about presents,” he said. “It’s not just about presents, it’s about Jesus.”
“The kids truly believe,” Michelle added. “They get the excitement of the traditions of Christmas and they know that there is a Santa, but they know the true meaning behind Christmas is really Jesus.”
Santa’s house is truly a work of art. Signs hanging from a ceiling covered in lights proclaim “Merry Christmas” in 50 different languages. Two trains run constantly, one around a little ceramic village, another elevated on tracks high above. Each day during his opening “press conference,” Santa Claus answers questions — his favorite food is chocolate chip cookies and his reindeer run faster than a jet — and opens a letter on his calendar. Each entry has a corresponding short “homily” that reinforces the religious spirit of Christmas.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Albanese said. “He puts the meaning into the season.”
Will McGowan’s daughter, Amy, attends the Academy of Christian Education in Reston.
This is her second year visiting the Merrifield Santa, “but we’ve heard about this from many people for many years,” McGowan said.
“He’s the best Santa,” he added. “He leaves the commercialism out and brings what the true meaning of Christmas is. It’s as simple as that.”
“I get the best reward,” Buckreis said. “If (St. Nicholas) was alive on this earth today, he would say, ‘I am putting Christ back into Christmas where He belongs.’”
Santa will be in Merrifield until Dec. 23, when he closes up shop and heads to the North Pole.
Printed with permission from the Catholic Herald, newspaper from the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.
Harare, Zimbabwe, Dec 14, 2008 (CNA) - In reaction to her “disturbing” abduction, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the president of Caritas Internationalis, has called for the immediate release of Jestina Mukoko and other missing human rights advocates in Zimbabwe.
Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), was abducted from her home in Harare on December 3 when fifteen men in plain clothes broke into her family home. Her son witnessed the abduction, Caritas Internationalis reports.
Her whereabouts are still unknown.
The ZPP is a partner organization of Caritas Ireland, also known as Trócaire.
“News of the abduction of Jestina Mukoko is disturbing,” said Cardinal Rodriguez. “She is a respected human rights defender and valued partner of Caritas. Ms. Mukoko and all other human rights defenders that have been abducted should be immediately freed. The rule of law and respect for human rights must be re-established in Zimbabwe.”
Two of Mukoko’s colleagues were taken by force from their offices on December 8. Their whereabouts are also unknown and no one has taken responsibility for their abductions.
The ZPP, a human rights organization, has reportedly documented politically motivated violence in Zimbabwe. It rose to prominence during the run-up to the widely criticized June presidential election.
Human rights have drastically deteriorated in Zimbabwe, Caritas Internationalis reports. People are being indirectly denied food and clean water, health care, and education. The police and army have shot illegal diamond miners, while more than seventy people have been arrested at trade union protests.
Reportedly, civil society activists have been detained after peaceful protests and human rights advocates have been systematically targeted and detained.
Vatican City, Dec 14, 2008 (CNA) - The Holy Father delivered his Angelus address today on the theme of today’s entrance antiphon at Mass: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near.”
Speaking to the thousands of the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square, Pope Benedict XVI noted: “The apostle Paul, in writing to the Christians of Philippi, is clearly thinking of the return of Christ, and is inviting them to rejoice because this is certain.”
“Nonetheless, St. Paul himself, in his letter to the Thessalonians, warns that no one can know the moment of the Lord's coming and he cautions against any alarmism, as if the return of Christ were imminent,” the Pope stated. “So already at that time, the Church, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, increasingly understood that the 'closeness' of God is not a question of space and time, but a question of love: love draws near!”
“Christmas is coming to remind us of this fundamental truth of our faith, and, in front of the Nativity scene, we can taste Christian joy, contemplating in the newborn Jesus the face of God, who out of love drew close to us."
The Holy Father proceeded to bless the “Bambinelli,” the statues of the baby Jesus to be placed in Nativity scenes by the children of Rome.
After the Angelus, Benedict XVI greeted the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present.
“I am happy to greet all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present for today’s Angelus prayer. On this Third Sunday of Advent we are called to rejoice because the Lord is near. As we renew our hope in Jesus and look forward to his coming, may we experience in our lives the deep joy of his salvation. I wish you all a pleasant stay in Rome, and a blessed Sunday!”
Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2008 (CNA) - The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) claims that Catholic schools save $19.8 billion to the U.S. annually in savings by serving children who would otherwise be educated at taxpayer expense.
The NCEA reports that the nation’s almost 7,400 Catholic schools enroll more than 2.2 million students, who would have been educated in public schools at an average cost of $8,701 per student.
"Catholic schools are a gift to the church - and to the nation," said Dr. Karen Ristau, President of NCEA, in a December 11 press release. "The enormity of this gift is more striking during these challenging economic times."
"Our graduates have a strong commitment to community service because that is a foundation of our schools," continued Ristau. "Just this past year Catholic school students performed 2.2 million hours of public service in honor of Pope Benedict's visit. That kind of involvement is a gift to the country that cannot be measured in dollars alone."
The NCEA reports that Catholic school students excel academically on standardized tests. About 99.1 percent of Catholic school students graduate, and 94 percent attend college. Additionally, the Catholic educators’ group says that “studies show that graduates of Catholic schools are reliable workers, good citizens and more likely to attend church.”
According to the NCEA, Catholic schools aim to join academic achievement with an understanding of the Catholic faith, a commitment to religious practice, and “a strong set of values.”
“Catholic schools provide faith formation and values. Teachers view the formation of Christian character as a non-negotiable, which is Gospel centered, environmental, cross-curricular and essential in a society where values are often ignored,” the NCEA remarked.
Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2008 (CNA) -
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president Cardinal Francis George and Catholic commentator George Weigel have both written statements eulogizing Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, following the American theologian’s death on Friday. Cardinal George called him “a great theologian and a totally dedicated servant of the Church” while Weigel recalled the late cardinal’s humility and modesty.
"His wise counsel will be missed; his personal witness to the pursuit of holiness of life as a priest, a Jesuit and a Cardinal of the Church will be remembered and will encourage the Church to remain ever faithful to her Lord and his mission,” Cardinal George said in a Friday statement.
George Weigel, writing in Newsweek, recounted some details of Dulles’ life and faith.
Born on August 24, 1918, Cardinal Dulles was a part of a family with a long history of government service. His father, great-uncle, and great-grandfather all held the office of U.S. Secretary of State. According to Weigel, Dulles’ father John Foster Dulles was “the most prominent Protestant layman of the 1940s” and a chairman of the Federal Council of Churches' Commission to Study the Bases of a Just and Endurable Peace.
However, the young Avery Dulles arrived at Harvard University as a “thoroughgoing” skeptic and agnostic. Then on a windy spring day in 1938, Dulles was walking along the Charles River when he noticed the veins in a leaf on a blossoming tree.
“Such precision, beauty, and purpose could not, he thought, be an accident,” Weigel said.
Dulles realized the universe must be governed by an all-good and omnipotent God. "That night," he later recounted, "I prayed for the first time in years."
Having come to appreciate, in Weigel’s words, the “depth, subtlety and coherent structure” of Catholicism, he entered the Church in 1940. After serving in the Navy, he joined the Society of Jesus and was ordained a priest in 1956.
He would go on to serve as a professor of systematic theology at Catholic University of America and later was a professor of religion and society at Fordham University.
His rigorous academic formation made him an intellectual leader in U.S. Catholicism and in the United States as a whole.
“His steadiness, which was complemented by an equally remarkable fairness to those with whom he disagreed, made him a unique figure on the U.S. Catholic theological scene--a reference point for just about every serious Catholic religious thinker, and more than a few Protestants and Jews as well,” Weigel wrote in Newsweek.
Weigel called Dulles a “self-consciously ecclesial theologian” who deliberately “thought with the Church.”
Dulles produced more than two dozen books and 800 scholarly articles. In 2001 Pope John Paul II, reportedly acting on the advice of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, elevated him to the cardinalate.
Weigel recounted Father Dulles’ reaction to being named a cardinal, saying the Jesuit priest’s first action was to inquire whether he could be dispensed from canonical law requiring that a cardinal be ordained a bishop.
“I assured him that a dispensation would be readily given, as it had been for others like him. There was an audible sigh of relief at the other end of the phone. It was all another expression of the man's humility.”
Dulles chose as his cardinal’s motto St. Paul’s words “Scio cui credidi,” meaning "I know in whom I have believed.”
“He never sought cheap originality or sound-bite fame,” Weigel continued, praising Dulles’ “modesty of intellectual purpose” which accompanied his “charming modesty of person.”
“One does not often see cardinals of the Holy Roman Church walking across campus in cheap blue windbreakers; the cardinal's sartorial style would have caused grimaces at Walmart, let alone Brooks Brothers,” Weigel wrote in Newsweek.
Father James Massa, executive director of the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the USCCB and a student of Cardinal Dulles, also praised his life.
"For a generation of priests, scholars and faithful, Cardinal Avery Dulles has been a reliable and faithful interpreter of the Second Vatican Council. A number of his books have become classics in theological education, such as Models of the Church," he said in a USCCB press release. "In some ways, his life bears comparison with another great cardinal-theologian, John Henry Newman, on whose birthday, 200 years later, Avery Dulles was created a cardinal of the Catholic Church."
During his visit to the U.S. in April, Pope Benedict XVI met with Cardinal Dulles in a private audience.
In his USCCB statement, Cardinal George’s memorial remarks concluded:
"I am deeply saddened at the loss of a personal friend,” Cardinal George said. “But I rejoice in the hope that now he sees clearly what he explored so well in his studies on revelation, on grace and on the nature of the Church and the papal office. May he rest in peace."
Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2008 (CNA) - New resources for Spanish-speaking Catholics have been added to the web page of the Committee of Divine Worship of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to help them understand and prepare for revisions to be implemented in the Roman Missal.
The materials were published on December 12 to coincide with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Some of the changes to the Roman Missal will not affect the Spanish translation. However, Bishop Arthur Serratelli, chairman of the committee, said in an introductory letter that it wanted to offer materials in Spanish “to aid those responsible to present the changes in the English edition of the Roman Missal to Spanish speakers.”
The entire English text of the Ordo Missae is presented on the web site “for study and formation only,” a USCCB press release stated.
The text “will only be promulgated for use in the celebration of the Mass upon the approval of the full revised text of the Roman Missal, which can still take several years.”
The Spanish-language supplementary materials include an overview of educational materials in development; responses to frequently asked questions; a collection of translated articles from past newsletters on the Roman Missal translation; tables highlighting changes in the texts; and links to other sources.
Specific questions are addressed in the materials, such as why the Latin phrase “pro multis” should be translated as “for many” and not “for all.”
Translation of the Roman Missal into Spanish is also underway, and the USCCB plans to produce a Spanish-language text for use in U.S. dioceses.
Missal information, in English and Spanish, is available at the U.S. bishops’ web site at
Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2008 (CNA) -
Despite President-elect Obama’s move to the center on economic and national security issues, he will nonetheless be a radical on social issues, political commentator Paul Weyrich predicts. Such radicalism could be necessary to placate left-wing Obama supporters disappointed by his more centrist decisions.
“There will be no moderation on social issues,” commented Weyrich, a Greek Catholic deacon who is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
Though his political opponents accused Obama of being a socialist, the president-elect has appointed a group of economic advisers that is “center-right” in the context of the Democratic Party, Weyrich argued in a December 2 commentary. His economic team “believes in the free market principles” and could persuade Obama to avoid increasing taxes.
Weyrich further claimed that Obama’s national security team is “center right” in a Democratic context.
“There are still no radicals among them,” he wrote, noting Obama’s retention of President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his choice of Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.
“All of this has the left wing blogs in a state of panic,” Weyrich claimed. “They feel betrayed. Some of them want to give the president-elect the benefit of the doubt but others believe they have been had.”
“Well, calm down lefties. It is clear to me that while the president-elect may not be a socialist regarding the economy and he may not be radical when it comes to the military, he gives every indication of being radical on the social issues.”
“He fully intends to undo almost all of President Bush's executive orders protecting human life,” he warned.
Weyrich claimed that Obama will enact the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) to codify Roe v. Wade and abolish all state and federal restrictions on abortion. Obama’s policies may even force Catholic doctors to perform abortions or leave the medical profession and may force Catholic hospitals to close.
“He is very likely to enact some kind of homosexual rights legislation,” he continued, saying Obama could try to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which holds that no state has to accept same-sex marriages contracted in another state.
“He wants to see to it that gay marriage is accepted nationally,” Weyrich alleged.
Further, Obama has pledged to enact embryonic stem cell legislation that is “vehemently opposed by the pro-life community.”
In Weyrich’s view, social radicalism would appease left-wing activists and bloggers such as Daily Kos.
“Yes, they would like some socialists appointed to key positions in the government. And yes they would like some pacifists put in to tame the military, but above all else they want unlimited tax-payer funded abortions, hate crime legislation and the so called ‘Fairness Doctrine’ re-instated so that the political opposition can be silenced. By being radical on the social issues, Obama will keep his coalition together and quiet the left.”