Dear Parishioners: Merry Christmas! This year we are blessed to have the great feast of the Nativity of our Lord on a Sunday.  This means we’ve had an extra week of Advent prayer and preparation for Christmas. So celebrate the birth of our Savior!

Just took weeks ago in Rome on the Third Sunday of Advent Pope Francis  offered  his greetings after the Angelus to the large crowd of Romans gathered at St. Peter's Square: “Today my first greeting is reserved for all the children and young people of Rome who have come for the traditional ‘Bambinelli’ Blessing.”

The Bambinelli Blessing is a great  tradition at which the Holy Father blesses  Baby Jesus figures.  Thousands of children gather in the square with the Baby Jesus figurines from their home Nativity sets held aloft.  This year was no different and Pope Francis said to the children gathered for the blessing:   “Dear children, when you pray before your crèche with your parents, ask the Baby Jesus to help all of us to love God and our neighbor.”

The very tradition of setting up a Nativity in our homes and Churches goes back to the 1223. Christmas was coming and St. Francis of Assisi longed to do something to help the people of the small Italian town of Greccio to feel close to the infant Jesus who  born for them in a stable in Bethlehem. The Saint knew these good folks would never have a chance to visit the Holy Land so he wanted to  make the Nativity a real and personal experience for the faithful.

He persuaded a friend to bring straw, hay, an ox and an ass to a cave overlooking the town. There, St. Francis did the best that he could to recreate the scene within the stable at Bethlehem. The news spread throughout the neighboring countryside and so, on Christmas Eve, people came from miles around for Midnight Mass, all of them willingly climbing the steep and rocky hillside in the bitter cold.

As St. Francis was a Deacon, he sang the Gospel telling the story of the first Christmas. He hoped and prayed that the congregation would see his makeshift manger and imagine the Baby Jesus lying in the hay, with Mary and Joseph on either side.

One man later reported that, during the Mass,he had a vision in which he saw a baby asleep in the manger. As he watched, he saw St. Francis pick the baby up, holding Him very lovingly in his arms. The man understood this to mean that the child Jesus had been forgotten by many people, but through St. Francis, that Christmas night in Greccio, the Baby Jesus came to life in the hearts and minds of all those who saw the crib.

St. Francis later explained why he created the crèche, suggesting: “I wanted to do something that  recalled the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of His infancy, how He lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.”

In the spirit of such a religious pilgrimage inspired by  Saint Francis, I invite you to enter on a journey on this Christmas 2016, a journey to Bethlehem. We may not be able to make the physical pilgrimage to the land of the Savior’s birth, but we can make the journey interiorly, that is, in our hearts, praying before the Nativity sets displayed in our homes and here at Church as spiritually we travel to Bethlehem to adore Him.

Our encounter with the Child of Bethlehem whose birth we celebrate this Christmas Day should fill us with great joy and renewed enthusiasm to live our Catholic faith. As we make our spiritual journey to Bethlehem to behold the face of God in Jesus Christ, I note that the word Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” The child Jesus came not only to redeem us through His death and resurrection, but to nourish and sustain us with His very Body and Blood, as He does at every Mass we celebrate and each time we worthily receive Him in Holy Communion.

On behalf of Fr. Barrow, Deacon Dowd and myself we wish you all a  Happy and Holy Christmas!  May it be a time of great joy and hope, a time of renewed faith and love, for you and your family.  May you  grow ever stronger in your Catholic faith and in your relationship with our Lord and Savior born Christmas Day.  As Pope Francis suggests, “may the Baby Jesus help all of us to love God and our neighbor.”

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Be well. Do good. God Bless. Go Pats!!!