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'Bless the Baby Jesus' Events
Attracting Kids and Bishops

 

by TIM DRAKE
Register Features Correspondent, National Catholic Register
Tim Drake is the editor of the new book Saints of the Jubilee available from 1stBooks (www.1stbooks.com/bookview/9831) or Amazon.com.  For more information on Saints of the Jubilee see our Book Spotlight feature.


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ST. LOUIS - The baby Jesus figures brought forward to Archbishop Justin Rigali by the children and their families came in all shapes and sizes.

Some brought beautiful statues from their Fontanini nativity sets. Others brought small handmade wooden Jesuses. Some were plastic, some straw, and some clay. Still others brought the outdoor variety, electrical plugs dangling from their cribs, trailing behind them.

While some emphasize Santa Claus at Christmas, an increasing number of Catholic families in various dioceses across the country are letting the real star of Christmas shine. Through Advent, many families have taken part in "Bless the Baby Jesus" events in churches across the country.

On the second Sunday of Advent, between 800 and 1,000 people gathered at the cathedral basilica of St. Louis for a diocesanwide Bless the Baby Jesus event. This year marks the third anniversary of St. Louis holding the event. Similar events sponsored by Catholic Kids Net are being held, or have already taken place, in Baltimore, Detroit, San Francisco and Miami.

The event consists of a simple liturgical service including Scripture readings, petitions, and a talk given by the bishop. Afterward, each family brings forward its baby Jesus to be blessed by the bishop. This year the archdiocesan children's choir sang during the procession.

In addition, each family is encouraged to bring forward offerings of layettes, diapers or "swaddling clothes" as a donation to the LifeLine Coalition for Babies. Donations last year filled to overflowing 10 laundry baskets put out for the collection.

History of the Blessing

Formed in 1998, Catholic Kids Net is a national group that provides learning activities to families. It has more than 4,000 members in 48 states. In St. Louis alone, nearly 400 families make up approximately 20 Catholic Kids Net clubs.

"Each month Catholic Kids Net presents the realities of the faith in a way that speaks to children," explained national director Kathleen Conklin. "Bless the Baby Jesus is simply the culmination of everything that we do in Catholic Kids Net all year long."

The Christmas event got its start when a friend mentioned it to Laurie Gill, the local director of Catholic Kids Net.

"She said that the Holy Father did something similar in Rome. At the time, I wasn't looking for something extra to do at the holidays," said Gill, a home-schooling mother of six.

However, following her attendance at an international event for families held in Atlanta, Gill was moved by the experience and wanted to do something for God. "I returned home that November and felt more responsive to this woman's suggestion," said Gill. "We publicized it through Catholic Kids Net, and eventually a small, private group approached the bishop about hosting the event."

Three years ago those families approached Archbishop Rigali to inquire about the possibility of meeting with him to have their statues of baby Jesus blessed. "Originally we expected about 30 people to meet in Archbishop Rigali's office," said Gill, "but a few days before the event it looked like there would be about 100, and so it was moved to a small chapel in the St. Louis cathedral."

As news of the event spread by word of mouth, Gill learned of even more people that planned to attend, and the event had to be moved a second time, this time to the main cathedral. "In the end we had a couple hundred," recalled Gill.

The following year the Archdiocesan Office for Laity and Family Life and the Office of Worship co-sponsored the event and invited all parishes to take part. Last year, more than 700 people attended.

Transforming the Day

Families see the event as a way to emphasize the spiritual meaning of Christmas while downplaying the season's materialism. "It is a great time for the bishop to be with families to address the subject of Christmas with children," explained Gill. "It meets a real need that parents have toward reminding their children about the true nature of Christmas in a picturesque and memorable way. Our archbishop has responded to it as a custom of the Church."

"The competition that exists for the hearts of our children at Christmas is fierce," added Gill. "It's important that we have an equally strong experiences for the kids that are Christ-centered."

Msgr. Ted Wojcicki agrees. "So much of Christmas preparation is wrapped up with externals - gifts, lights, glitter. This event helps families to focus on the real purpose of Christmas," said the vicar for evangelization and planning for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

"The archbishop has said that because of the tragic events in the U.S. this fall, the whole meaning of Christ as savior has more meaning than ever," he added.

"As Catholics not only do we have the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but we also have the symbolic presence of the Christ Child in our homes. This symbol is a great way to teach children about who Jesus is."

Christmas in Miami

In Miami, nearly 250 people attended last year's event with Auxiliary Bishop Gilberto Fernandez. Because of scheduling conflicts the archbishop was unable to attend this year's event. In his absence, Father Jim Fetscher blessed the families at St. Louis Catholic Church on Dec. 14.

As part of last year's Miami Bless the Baby Jesus event, the children staged a Nativity play. This year, they will do a Gospel narration. In addition to inviting Miami's 30 Catholic Kids Net teams, the diocese has also invited families from area Catholic schools to take part in this year's event.

"The response to last year's event was overwhelming," said Ana Pierce, coordinator in Miami. "It's a wonderful event because it brings families together to share in a community outside of one's own parish."

Many in Laurie Gill's own family, as well as others, have told her that the Bless the Baby Jesus event was the highlight of their year. "I know from the feedback that this is an event that really touches people," she said.

In addition to the Christ Child from their family nativity set, 10-year-old Elaine Gill and her five siblings each carried their own smaller toy Jesus.

Elaine has been a member of Catholic Kids Net for four years. As one of the older members of her group she serves as a junior team member. She said that her team meets monthly. In October, her group met to make chili for the poor.

This year, Elaine read the petitions at the "Bless the Baby Jesus" event.

"I like it because it reminds us that Christmas isn't about presents or trees," she said. "It is about Jesus."

 

This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register. All rights reserved.