By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
In the season where elves on shelves compete with Advent calendars and Santa overrides St. Nicholas in the marketplace, what’s spiritually lacking on the visual landscape can be found audibly in Christmas carols and sacred music.
“When it comes to Christmas, I’m always very aware of the people who perhaps come just once or twice a year” to church, said Paul Inwood, a British composer whose setting for the hymn of the Holy Year of Mercy was chosen by the Vatican.
“You can’t find anything more religious and more joyful in sacred celebrations than the whole congregation expressing its faith and devotion in song,” Inwood said during an early December phone interview with Catholic News Service.
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For that reason, the music that parishes program should be “beautiful and magnificent” but also “hospitable” and “accessible” to everyone, he said.
That concept is widely recognized and reflected in parishes throughout the Trenton Diocese – many of which have been striving since late summer and early fall – to create musical events ranging from classical and traditional for the Advent and Christmas seasons.
The programs run the gamut from Christmas Carol Festivals – a concept that began in the Diocese in 2007 and continues to be found in parishes nationwide – and fully orchestrated concerts featuring noted conductors such as Father Alphonse Stephenson – to offerings of sacred music in all genres by parish and community choirs.
The wide emphasis reflects the tendency toward inclusion that has flourished since the Second Vatican Council and is a unique characteristic of the Latin-rite Catholic Church, said Msgr. Vincenzo DeGregorio, who heads the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome and is an expert in the pipe organ and Gregorian chant. He holds degrees in sacred theology and modern literature.
“In her wisdom,” he said, the Church embraces appealing local traditions and elevates them, finding a way to fold them into the sacred.
In the Trenton Diocese, this is reflected by creating programs that people want to hear as they celebrate the gift of the Incarnation, say pastors and music ministers.
Along with that recognition is the hope that sharing the gift of music in a warm community setting will send a message of evangelization, one that says “all people of goodwill are welcome” any time, said Msgr. Sam Sirianni, pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Freehold.
More than 300 people attended the parish’s sixth annual Christmas Carol Festival Dec. 2, and scores more were present Dec. 9 for a Community Choir Concert with a freewill collection to benefit the parish’s Father Benedict Ministries, which helps those in need.
As in all parishes, music is a mainstay of the liturgies of the Christmas season there, and Msgr. Sirianni, former diocesan director of worship, spoke of its ability to unify its listeners.
“When I gave liturgy workshops, I used the National Anthem as an example of when 20,000 people watching a sporting event finish singing it, there is a sense of unity among the assembled. Music does that.
“Music also evokes memories,” he said. “You remember the last time you sang a particular piece or heard it. Music stirs the heart and draws us deeper into the mystery of what we are celebrating.”
Everything Says Welcome
Whether 500 people are expected, as in St.Veronica Parish, Howell, Dec. 9, or a little more than 100 as in Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Holly, Dec. 4, the emphasis is consistently directed not only to the parishioner, but also to the stranger who may be coming to the door for the first time, said the organizers of annual Christmas Carol Festivals, such as Deacon Gino Esposito of St. Veronica Parish.
“Our goal is to bring the community [at-large] together on common ground as we invoke the spirit of Christmas,” said Deacon Esposito, who has been overseeing the festival for years. “It is a tool for evangelization and in the last few years it has drawn between 300 and 500 people.”
“It’s not a production; it is not a show; it is traditional Christmas carols, readings and explanations which focus on the true meaning of Christmas,” he said. Our focus is Catholicism, but it’s a community event. We want everyone to feel comfortable.”
To do that, the parish advertises in bulletins, fliers and invitational cards sent home with the children in the large religious education program and students in St. Veronica School who are not necessarily members of the parish, he said.
Over the years, the reaction has been very positive, said Deacon Esposito. “I’ve had people come back and say we made them feel comfortable. They had stepped away from the Church and were coming back to what they say was a welcoming, loving community.”
It’s much the same in St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish, Avon, and Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Holly, where Christmas Carol Festivals have also become a staple of the season town wide and beyond. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, for instance, has close ties with neighboring St. Rose Parish, Belmar, so staff make sure to spread the word to the parish and the elementary and high schools.
“We do view this as evangelization,” said Janice Cunningham, who organizes the festival in St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish along with Laura Connell. “It’s also a fellowship effort, something people can go to outside of just seeing each other at Mass.”
Teresa Redder focuses on “creating a spirit of joy and welcome” each year for the festival in Sacred Heart and notes happily that the message has spread. “One lady last year brought out- of- state visitors, people who are not Catholic. Others brought family members who don’t belong to the church. It’s a coming home program that’s non-threatening,” said Redder. “It’s a way to invite family members in and keep Christ at the center of Christmas.”
Unto Us a Child is Born
In Holy Cross Parish, Rumson, and St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, the attire of the singers and musicians may be more formal, the music definitely more classical, but the atmosphere at both parishes is just as warm and welcoming.
More than 400 people were drawn to a concert at in Holy Cross Dec. 4 created to set the tone musically for Advent and prepare listeners for Christmas.
There, Don Carolina, parish director of music, conducted 17 members of the Holy Cross Adult Choir – accompanied by an 11-member chamber choir and six-piece chamber orchestra in Part One of the Messiah, the 275-year-old work by George Frideric Handel.
“Music reaches people in different ways,” Carolina said. “Once you get your foot back in the Church, you can experience the peace and inspiration and might realize you want to go back next Sunday.”
That hope was very much present Dec. 11 in the nave of St. Ann Church, where the 40-voice adult choir presented Nine Lessons and Carols under the direction of Rachael Lavery. The service of Christian worship that celebrates the Birth of Jesus originated in Victorian England and has been followed at Christmas since the early 1900s.
As the service unfolds, listeners follow biblical history from the promise of the Messiah to the Birth of Jesus in nine short Readings from Genesis, the prophetic books and the Gospels.
Pastoral associate Gary Maccaroni spoke of how vital programs like this are in helping people to focus on the true nature of Advent. For that reason, he said, the parish always reaches out to let the community at-large know through outreach and advertising about the opportunity so close at hand.
Maccaroni said that “a function like this makes people more prone to return. It has the capacity to touch people on a very deep level.”
Catholic News Service contributed to this story.