Christmas is certainly a time when gift giving is front and center in the minds of most people. They shop around looking for that perfect gift. They usually want it to be special and signify the relationship or friendship that is celebrated.
Although some would, in our secular society, attribute this sense of generosity to the figure of Santa Claus, who was actually a bishop, St. Nicholas, I would like to think that Christians would turn their gaze toward Bethlehem and remember the birth of Jesus. This event in our Christian history is referred to as the “incarnation.” The incarnation is the great mystery whereby the Son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity assumed our flesh, body and soul, and dwelt among us. There is a Latin phrase — lex orandi lex credenda — meaning that we pray what we believe. On Sundays, we profess our faith when we pray the Nicene Creed and proclaim: “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The divine and human were united in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a mystery because there is no way we as human could ever fully understand the act of our God becoming one with us. This child Jesus becomes the perfect gift because he surrenders his life to join us in our humanity.
A gift in some small manner often represents ourselves, but in the gift of the Father of his Son, Jesus turns over his life completely and totally so that we might have life because of him. The gift of his birth changes us forever. It, in some sense, certainly is ironic — normally at birthdays the person who is celebrating his birth receives gifts; however, on Christ’s birthday everyone else receives the gift of this child Jesus.
For those who have followed my time in the archdiocese, you know that I have always had three priorities: Catholic identity, evangelization and stewardship.
Catholic Identity is who we are. Evangelization is what we do. And stewardship is how we do it.
In stewardship, we begin by recognizing that we are custodians of the gifts God has entrusted to us. A mentor in my episcopal life was Francis Cardinal George, the former Archbishop of Chicago. He stated that although the Biblical yardstick for stewardship is “tithing,” which means 10 percent of whatever we earn should go to God as a gift. It does not reflect the Catholic position, which is that everything we have belongs to God. We learn in the Gospels of individual servants entrusted with the king’s property and then held accountable for multiplying those gifts. All of us are recipients of gifts given to us by our predecessors. We occupy beautiful parishes and gathering spaces because sacrifices have been made in the past by the faithful who loved their faith. Today, we the future generations worship and gather as a believing community because of their generosity. This was a gift by the faithful to the Church, thankful to God for the faith they received.
Unfortunately, many today do not share in the responsibility of caring for the patrimony entrusted to us. Shockingly, it is said that less than 20 percent of a parish population supports more than 80 percent of the parish needs. I echo Matthew Kelly’s sentiments that one could be discouraged unless we think of how much more we could accomplish if we moved that 20 percent to 25 percent.
I thank God in prayers for those who have been so generous in our Catholic Stewardship Appeal. It assists us in fulfilling our responsibilities to the various missions of the archdiocese (seminary, schools, Catholic Charities, etc.). But besides meeting our goal, I try to examine if the number of those participating increases. It doesn’t have to be a large gift; even a small gift means that one is involved and sharing their blessings. Our current Capital Campaign, “Love One Another,” is proving to be a statement of the parishioners’ love for their parish and the faith. The achievement of the Capital Campaign goal will ensure that we fulfill our responsibilities in the future. Hopefully, there will be prayers by future generations who will experience the benefits of those who make sacrifices today.
Recently, at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, presentations were made by Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services. Catholic Charities USA oversees the distribution of needed charities in the United States, whereas CRS is the arm of the Bishops’ Conference for the distribution for those in need in the world. It was inspiring to hear of the charitable good works performed in response to disasters at home and abroad. The recent hurricanes and tornadoes in our country, and the natural and man-made catastrophes experienced abroad, were responded to by Catholic Charities and CRS. As Christians, we tend not to brag about good works; therefore, it is not readily known that Catholic Charities — with its tens of millions of dollars — accounts for the distributions of more support for those in need than any agency outside of the federal government.
I can personally testify, as a past member of the Board of Trustees of CRS, to the fact that in the various charitable projects that I visited in the Philippines, it was CRS that organized and directed those projects. Others may have assisted, but it was CRS leadership that was the dominant force. In the work of CRS, famine is avoided, drought addressed, education offered, medical assistance provided and structures built. Through these charitable organizations, one experiences the corporal works of mercy in action. Our own local Catholic Charities serves more than 50,000 people in the 10 counties of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and there are four other dioceses in Wisconsin, each with their own Catholic Charities. We can be proud of the work of these organizations, and they are certainly worthy of our support.
As we approach the season of Christmas and begin looking for that perfect gift, let us be mindful that the perfect gift was given to us in the person of Jesus Christ and that he would remind us that his love should direct us to remember our brothers and sisters in need. I give you a new commandment: Love one another.