Archive of December 9, 2012

North Pole Catholics honor holy days in town filled with Christmas kitsch

North Pole, Alaska, Dec 9, 2012 (CNA) - The much bemoaned commercialization of Christmas reaches a whole new level in North Pole, Alaska — a town that celebrates Santa 365 days a year.

Commercialized Christmas

The giant candy cane street lights are a permanent feature in this northern town, where Santa is available for pictures in July. In fact the town’s economy revolves around the selling of Christmas year round.

Amid this tourism spectacle, Father Robert Fath and parishioners at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in North Pole try to focus on the season of Advent and the true meaning of the Incarnation.

Following the historic traditions of the church, Christians are meant to spend Advent “in anxious anticipation” of both Christ’s incarnation into the world at Bethlehem, and his return at the end of time, Father Fath told the Catholic Anchor.

This focus can prove challenging in a town where emphasis on Santa and toys continues through the penitential season of Advent.

Sometimes it gets to Father Fath.

“I do tend to rail against Santa Claus,” he said, “particularly the 50 foot monstrosity down the street.”

He refers to a 50-foot permanent statue of Santa in town. Father Fath jokes that someday he’s going to build a 51-foot statue of the real Saint Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century bishop whose legend inspired the modern-day Santa.

In North Pole, there is also the Santa Claus House, a year-round Santa available for photos, live reindeer on display, and streets with permanent names like Snowman Lane, Kris Kringle, Mistletoe, and Holiday Road.

How did all of this come about, since the town of North Pole is actually 1,700 miles from the real North Pole?

Banking on Christmas

Like many Alaska towns North Pole is relatively young. According to the city’s website, the first settlers arrived near mile 15 of the Richardson Highway in 1944 and staked their claim.

By 1952, others had joined them with the promise of electrical power.

What to call this new town? Someone came up with the idea of “North Pole” thinking it might attract toy manufacturers with the lure of a “made in North Pole” logo. Although that idea didn’t pan out, the notion that a Disney-like Santa town might spring up did.

Today, tourists flock to North Pole, and letters by the thousands arrive for Santa from all over the world. When a Catholic parish was established in 1975, it was natural that it be named Saint Nicholas.

Keeping Christmas Special

Lisa Sagers is the parish youth worker. Unlike Father Fath, who is a lifelong Alaskan, Sagers came to the Christmas capital of the world from Los Angeles 10 years ago.

When she phones colleagues in the Lower-48 and identifies herself as being from St. Nicholas in North Pole, she laughs when people say, “You’re kidding, right?”

She finds some aspects of her adopted home “quaint” and marvels at the fact that a local man legally changed his name to Kris Kringle.

But she admires the way Father Fath manages to make Christmas special in a town that sometimes grows weary of the spectacle.

“Father Robert has been amazing. His family had so many rich traditions and he’s able to share these with our youth,” Sagers said. “At St. Nicholas, we understand when the tree and the lights should go up.”

Heart of Christmas

Father Fath has a very young parish with 500 youth under age 18. He enjoys telling them stories about the real Saint Nicholas, while emphasizing that we “anticipate the gift of Christ, not toys.”

Father Fath makes sure the children know the history of the famous saint — a man who never lived in the North Pole.

“I like to emphasize that Saint Nicholas was really from Turkey,” Father Fath said.

On the Sunday nearest the Dec. 6 Feast of Saint Nicholas, children in faith formation classes put their shoes outside their classroom doors to be filled with candy. But even this is part of an older European custom celebrating Saint Nicholas, not Santa.

Father Fath then celebrates Mass and speaks of the real man, instead of the one smothered in cultural kitsch.

He also points to the charitable works that the parish does during Advent and the way parishioners, especially the youth, focus on giving. Food collections and adoptions of needy families fill the weeks before Christmas.

Letters to Santa

While the faithful at St. Nicholas certainly strive to keep the old traditions, some parishioners participate in more modern ones as well, like helping to answer the deluge of letters that arrive at the Post Office for Santa each December.

Parishioner Raymond Clark was the local postmaster for nine years. Before his retirement in 2003, he witnessed the “extremely large volume of mail” from children all over the world.

Clark said many parishioners participate in local volunteer efforts to answer the barrage of letters.

The most touching letters, he said, arrive in childish scrawl and have no return address. For Clark, the community effort to read and answer these letters impacts his spirituality.

“Your faith,” he said, “and how you practice your faith are what make Christmas unique.”

Posted with permission from Catholic Anchor, official newspaper for the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.

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On Dec. 14, Church remembers Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross

Denver, Colo., Dec 9, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) - Dec. 14 is the liturgical memorial of Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century Carmelite priest best known for reforming his order together with Saint Teresa of Avila, and for writing the classic spiritual treatise “The Dark Night of the Soul.”

Honored as a Doctor of the Church since 1926, he is sometimes called the “Mystical Doctor,” as a tribute to the depth of his teaching on the soul's union with God.

The youngest child of parents in the silk-weaving trade, John de Yepes was born during 1542 in Fontiveros near the Spanish city of Avila. His father Gonzalo died at a relatively young age, and his mother Catalina struggled to provide for the family. John found academic success from his early years, but failed in his effort to learn a trade as an apprentice. Instead he spent several years working in a hospital for the poor, and continuing his studies at a Jesuit college in the town of Medina del Campo.

After discerning a calling to monastic life, John entered the Carmlite Order in 1563. He had been practicing severe physical asceticism even before joining the Carmelites, and got permission to live according to their original rule of life – which stressed solitude, silence, poverty, work, and contemplative prayer. John received ordination as a priest in 1567 after studying in Salamanca, but considered transferring to the more austere Carthusian order rather than remaining with the Carmelites.

Before he could take such a step, however, he met the Carmelite nun later canonized as Saint Teresa of Avila. Born in 1515, Teresa had joined the order in 1535, regarding consecrated religious life as the most secure road to salvation. Since that time she had made remarkable spiritual progress, and during the 1560s she began a movement to return the Carmelites to the strict observance of their original way of life. She convinced John not to leave the order, but to work for its reform.

Changing his religious name from “John of St. Matthias” to “John of the Cross,” the priest began this work in November of 1568, accompanied by two other men of the order with whom he shared a small and austere house. For a time, John was in charge of the new recruits to the “Discalced Carmelites” – the name adopted by the reformed group, since they wore sandals rather than ordinary shoes as sign of poverty. He also spent five years as the confessor at a monastery in Avila led by St. Teresa.

Their reforming movement grew quickly, but also met with severe opposition that jeopardized its future during the 1570s. Early in December of 1577, during a dispute over John's assignment within the order, opponents of the strict observance seized and imprisoned him in a tiny cell. His ordeal lasted nine months and included regular public floggings along with other harsh punishments. Yet it was during this very period that he composed the poetry that would serve as the basis for his spiritual writings.

John managed to escape from prison in August of 1578, after which he resumed the work of founding and directing Discalced Carmelite communities. Over the course of a decade he set out his spiritual teachings in works such as “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” “The Spiritual Canticle” and “The Living Flame of Love” as well as “The Dark Night of the Soul.” But intrigue within the order eventually cost him his leadership position, and his last years were marked by illness along with further mistreatment.

St. John of the Cross died in the early hours of Dec. 14, 1591, nine years after St. Teresa of Avila's death in October 1582. Suspicion, mistreatment, and humiliation had characterized much of his time in religious life, but these trials are understood as having brought him closer to God by breaking his dependence on the things of this world. Accordingly, his writings stress the need to love God above all things – being held back by nothing, and likewise holding nothing back.

Only near the end of his life had St. John's monastic superior recognized his wisdom and holiness. Though his reputation had suffered unjustly for years, this situation reversed soon after his death. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and named a Doctor of the Church in the 20th century by Pope Pius XI. In a letter marking the 400th anniversary of St. John's death, Pope John Paul II – who had written a doctoral thesis on the saint's writings – recommended the study of the Spanish mystic, whom he called a “master in the faith and witness to the living God.”

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US bishops recommend prayers for Year of Faith

Washington D.C., Dec 9, 2012 (CNA) - By working to enrich their prayer lives, Catholics can grow closer to Christ and more deeply live out the Year of Faith, said the U.S. bishops' leader on matters of evangelization.

“The Year of Faith is about returning to the foundational teachings of the Church and drawing strength from them,” said Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, who heads the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis for U.S. bishops' conference.

He pointed to the Nicene Creed, the official prayer of the Year of Faith, as expressing “the core of Christian belief.”

Announced by Pope Benedict XVI, the Year of Faith runs from Oct. 11, 2012 to Nov. 24, 2013 and is an opportunity for Catholics to renew their faith so that they may more fully share it with those around them.  

On Dec. 5, Bishop Ricken offered “10 Prayers for the Year of Faith” that can also be an opportunity for Catholics to prepare for Christmas during the current Advent season.

The bishop recommended several basic Catholic prayers. He explained that the Lord’s Prayer, or Our Father, “is so central to the faith that it's said at every Mass.”

As the prayer that Christ gave us, it also brings us closer to Jesus and encourages a personal encounter with him, he added.

Another basic prayer, the Hail Mary, is also important, he bishop said, noting that “Mary will always assist Christians and bring them to her son.”

Furthermore, the Glory Be is a hymn of praise that “beautifully captures the essence of our faith in an eternal, Trinitarian God,” he said.

In addition to these basics, Bishop Ricken suggested the Acts of Contrition, Faith, Hope and Love as good staples for a Christian prayer life.

He advocated other Marian prayers as well. The Memorare “reminds God's people that Mary is our mother and that we can turn to her with anything,” he said, while the Magnificat, or Canticle of Mary from Luke’s Gospel, “gives a glimpse of the faith of someone who trusted God so much that he entered the world through her.”
He then suggested the Canticle of Zechariah as “a vivid testament of faith from someone experiencing God's goodness at work in the world.”
The bishop also recommended praying to angels with the Guardian Angel prayer often taught to children and the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

“Both are helpful reminders of the need to ask for God's protection and guidance every day,” he said.

Finally, Bishop Ricken suggested the Prayer for the New Evangelization, which can be found on the bishops’ conference website and calls for the Holy Spirit to strengthen the hearts of the faithful so that they may witness to the Gospel through their lives.

“The purpose of the Year of Faith is to renew and strengthen Catholics in their practice of the faith so that they may inspire the world with their example,” he explained. “This is the New Evangelization.”

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Christmas is more than a party, Pope explains

Vatican City, Dec 9, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) - The Pope asked Catholics to prepare for Christmas amid a consumerist society by listening to the voice of John the Baptist, who teaches us to celebrate Christmas as more than a party.

"Our aim today is listening to that voice to give space and welcome to the heart of Jesus, the word that saves us," said Pope Benedict XVI from his apartment window to pilgrims gathered below in St. Peter's Square.

The Pope asked Catholics to "prepare to see with the eyes of faith the humble stable of Bethlehem, God's salvation, in this time of Advent."

"In the consumer society, in which we seek joy in things, John the Baptist teaches us to live in an essential way, so Christmas is experienced not only as an outward party outside, but as the feast of the Son of God who came to bring peace, life and true joy to people."

"John plays a great role, but always in relation to Christ," said the Pope on Dec. 9, following the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

He explained that the four Gospels place the figure of John the Baptist at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, presenting him as his precursor.

Quoting from his new book on Jesus’ infancy, Pope Benedict pointed out that “St. Luke has further moved the connection between the two figures and their respective missions ... Already in their conception and birth, Jesus and John are brought into relation with each other."

He noted that this helps understand that John "not only is the last of the prophets, but also represents the whole priesthood of the Old Covenant and therefore prepares men for the worship of the spiritual New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus."

"Luke also dispels any mythic reading that is often made of the Gospels and the life of the historical places," said Pope Benedict, recalling the Gospel writer’s explicit mention of John the Baptist being born ‘In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor ... during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.’

He spoke of Saint Augustine, who said that Christ is the eternal word since the beginning, while John is the voice that passed by.

Perhaps building off the theme of John the Baptist in the wilderness,  the Pope also spoke of migrants, saying they often encounter little understanding among those they meet in foreign lands.

“In preparation for Christmas,” he urged people to have “a joyous and fraternal solidarity to come to the aid of their needs and support their hope.”

He called on Catholics to "not forget that every Christian is ‘en route’ to his true home, which is heaven," before greeting pilgrims in several languages.

Pope Benedict finished his reflections by entrusting everyone to the “maternal intercession of Mary, Virgin of Advent, so we may be ready to welcome, into our hearts and life, Emmanuel, God-with-us.”

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