DECEMBER 13, 2004




In His Light

by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron

Childhood memory of God’s unique gift

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Each year the days leading up to the celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 bring me back to one of the most powerful memories of my childhood.

See, that was the time for the annual novena to the Mother of Perpetual Help in my home parish back in Anchorville, Michigan. Our parish — you’ll excuse me for still calling it “ours” even though my home is here with you in the East Bay now, but “roots are roots” – is dedicated to Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, and somewhere along the way one of our wise pastors decided that this novena would be an excellent way for our little community to prepare for our patronal feast.

If I close my eyes I can see again, indeed almost feel once more, exactly how it was. The memories begin even before the start of the service. I remember my mother getting us through supper very efficiently – not rushed, but no time wasted – because there were no minutes to spare between when my dad came home from work and the time for getting on the road to church.

Part of the conversation at the table was my parents deciding which one would attend the novena. Of course, they couldn’t both go. For most of my time in grade school there were at least three of my siblings who were too young to bring along, and so my folks took up the novena as a team effort: one was delegated to mind the home, the other charged with praying for us all. Early on, I got to go along as well.

The novena began on the last day of November, so heading off to church meant traveling in the dark. That added a touch of the exotic to my experience, since all the rest of the time going to church was something that happened in the morning. I remember the feel of those autumn nights, the cold touch of the car’s upholstery, and not rarely driving through snow flurries.

The priest who led the novena services was always a Redemptorist Father who made the trek up from Detroit. These sons of St. Alphonsus had been very active throughout Southeast Michigan, spreading devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help – so much so, that almost every church in the area has a copy of this icon. I remember the peculiarities of the priests’ habits, the mission crosses at their belts and the white collars sown on the outside of their cassocks.

But most of all I remember their voices — their booming, full, don’t-you-even-think-about-falling-asleep-when-I’m-talking voices: deep and powerful when they preached; sonorous and elegant when they read out the list of favors requested and petitions granted.

I remember the prayers and the hymns – phrases which just to pronounce again stir a deep resonance in my soul: “O Mother of Perpetual Help, with the greatest confidence, we come before thy sacred picture, in order to invoke thine aid.” “Accept me for thy servant and receive me under thy mantle.”

But most of all I remember why we, my dad and mom and me, made the novena. Those first days of winter meant that my dad’s work in excavation and hauling dirt and gravel would soon be stopped for the season. And that meant scrimping to get through the annual lean time until work picked up again in the spring.

We went to the novena to ask Our Lady to keep things from getting too tough. And she always did. There was always enough; we were “economical,” but we never went without.

And so what is most deeply imbedded in my mind and heart from those novenas, and from every other time there was “favor to be requested,” is what my mother always said: Trust Our Blessed Mother.

Each year the days leading up to Dec. 8 bring me back not only to one of the most powerful memories of my childhood but also to one of the most important lessons in faith my parents taught me: that God loves us and that he has given us his holy mother to be our mother, too, so that he can protect us through her care.

Christmas celebrates the truth of who Jesus is

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

In trying to compose my Christmas message to all of you, it would seem the most natural thing in the world to borrow words from the scriptural account of Our Lord’s birth – something about his being born in a stable, a remark about the shepherds or the magi.

And yet, the Gospel saying that pops into my head repeatedly as I work on this composition is: “And you, who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15). Jesus’ question seems to be the word from God which he wants me to make the focus of what I write here.

At first it might seem paradoxical to pick one of Christ’s sayings from his public ministry to be the basis for talking about the feast of his birth. But such a move has its own very powerful logic.

In fact, each year at Christmas everyone who celebrates the feast – or, for that matter, declines to celebrate it – has to face the question of who Jesus really is. The way we answer the question determines the nature of our celebration.

If by the grace of faith we, like Simon Peter, know Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” then our Christmas feast is the celebration of the dawning in our world of the ultimate deliverance accomplished for us by God in his love.

For those who do not share Peter’s confession, the “holidays” are, at best, a pleasant respite from winter’s gloom, though inevitably touched with a bit of melancholy that such high hopes were not fulfilled.

So then, this is my Christmas wish for you: In every hour of every day of keeping the feast that you will renew your profession that the baby born in the stable and visited by the shepherds and the magi is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, in the flesh.

I pray that you will find even in the customs and songs and decorations that are not clearly “stamped with the face of Christ” a reminder that it is the coming to us of God-made-man that lies at the root of all that is good in this holiday. And in remembering just whose birthday it is we commemorate, your hearts will, I pray, be filled once again with hope and gratitude.

May you and your loved ones have great joy and peace in celebrating Christmas this year. May these days of the feast of Christ’s birth be a favored time of grace and light.


Official newspaper of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Oakland, California encompassing all of
Alameda &
Contra Costa counties.