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Making Room in Our Inns
by Marlene Sweeney

How can you tell if you’re in the holiday rush? If every square of your parish calendar is filled with food drives, prayer services, festive get-togethers, practices for pageants, giving trees, gift-wrapping projects—in addition to your normal program schedule—you know you’ve entered the ministry version of the “holiday rush.” What’s more, your own personal life might also be packed with shopping, cooking, decorating, and the usual seasonal fanfare.

Most DREs routinely find themselves rising to the quickened pace of late November and early December while secretly pledging that next year will be different. “Next year I will take time to delve into those beautiful Advent readings. Next year I will prioritize the many worthwhile outreach projects and appreciate that less is more. Next year I will invite the community to enter into the Advent spirit, where we wait together in anticipation for Christ’s coming while celebrating his presence among us. Next year I will teach the Church calendar by example rather than allowing the local mall to determine the holiday schedule. Next year I will wait, celebrate, and worship at a pace that leaves me and our parish refreshed rather than drained.”

Wait. This might be the year!

Expect the Unexpected

Borrowing from the Seder table tradition, many families leave an empty seat at their table during holiday meals. Tradition tells us that the vacant chair is for the unexpected visitor we would gladly welcome to our table.

As we plan our holiday catechetical schedule this season, I suggest we employ that idea of “leaving room.” Suggesting to catechists and families that we will do things a little differently this year in order to make room for the One who wants to share in our celebrations may come as a welcomed relief. After all, who offers a “sabbath” in the midst of our cultural frenzy?

However, I offer this caution: Parish life often mirrors the rest of the culture. So, lest your efforts be seen as the Grinch who stole Christmas, offering a different “way” will need to be grounded in sharing a wider vision of the Church calendar, as well as a family-friendly atmosphere that acknowledges the reality of the season.

Is Change Possible?

Yes. We create schedules. We can change schedules—especially to better serve our parish. In fact, DREs have the responsibility as well as the privilege to establish the tone and pace of the season.

When I need to make changes, I begin by asking questions. For example, what distracts us from entering into the Advent spirit in the manner we would like? What would we want our days of anticipation to look like? What do we do just because we’ve always done it—and done it “that way”? Are these annual activities meaningful to the community? If so, might there be other, simpler ways for people to participate?

I recall a large parish in which I served that had a reenactment of the Christmas story every year on Christmas Eve. This production was the responsibility of the DRE and always involved a huge amount of planning, volunteer power, and focus through most of December.

Because of the size of the parish and the parish facility, this pageant presented many restrictions as to who could be involved. In addition, few children actually had speaking parts because of the nature of the narrative. Most participants were relegated to being voiceless shepherds and angels. After several years, we resorted to a “lottery system” to determine who actually had speaking parts because groups often felt excluded. It always felt like a no-win situation.

Because I inherited this tradition, I needed to tread lightly when it came to change. Yet, if the purpose of acting out the Christmas story is to involve the children in the story of our salvation, then let us encourage as many children as possible in telling and re-telling this important piece of our tradition.

For example, we can invite the children to write their own scripts. We can allow children to enter into various roles instead of just performing them. We can invite entire families to participate. We can let everyone immerse themselves in this great story that we gather to celebrate.

Offer Ideas

Be sure to offer Advent ideas that are fun and prayerful and involve everyone

One DRE in our area begins the First Sunday of Advent by inviting all families to stay after Mass and construct Advent wreaths for the families to take home. She hands out (or posts on a website) prayers and readings to be used at the dinner table throughout Advent.

Another parish offers family-centered evening prayer and song immediately following class for the four weeks before Christmas.

When children return to class following the Christmas break, they find that, while their Christmas trees may be put away at home, their parish continues the Christmas celebration. They learn about the Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus, celebrated and told as part of the same story we all lived and celebrated the preceding weeks.

Start Small

Change starts small. Whatever your calendar may look like in the weeks ahead, decide now what is essential for you and your parish to live in joyful expectation. Be conscientious about making room for the One already among us and for whom we wait.        

Marlene Sweeney, MEd, MA, is a Certified Pastoral Associate in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Marlene is a writer and poet whose works have appeared in numerous books and periodicals. Email Marlene at mcsjames@yahoo.com.


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