For the two-thirds of the world's population in the missions, Christmas Day is like any other day - filled with hunger, life-threatening illnesses, war, great suffering.
In Sudan, where the children have known nothing but war and mass-killings, thousands die every day of preventable or curable diseases or as a result of violence suffered during attacks on villages or camps.
Witness to Christ's love
Salesian Sister Teresa gives the orphaned children food, shelter, and clothing. However, her greatest gift to them is her loving service, a witness to the love that Jesus has for each child.
Sister Teresa says, "They may not have peace in their surroundings, but I want to try to give them peace in their hearts. I tell them of an infant, much like themselves, whose family was forced to flee with His parents from their hometown. I tell them that God's love overcomes all fear. Some of the little ones want to hear that story every day."
In Gulu in northern Uganda, 69 percent of the deaths are connected to HIV/AIDS - three times more than the number who have perished in the fighting that has gone on for 18 years. At St. Mary's Hospital in Gulu, health care is provided for the poorest of the poor. The Sisters who run the hospital say that nearly 64 percent of the patients are children under the age of six.
In the past 15 years, the Sisters have treated 2.5 million patients. Said one Sister: "There are many patients, of course, for whom treatment is too late. All we can do is to care for them and to love them.
"We tell them that there is a God who loved them so much that He was born as a man so that He could die for their sins. Many of them are baptized and die with hope in their hearts of a better life afterwards."
Story of the Redeemer
In another part of Africa, Fr. George Mhruza of the Diocese of Tanga in Tanzania relates how catechists have brought the story of the Redeemer to the remotest areas of his diocese: "Some of our outstations are as far away as 60 kilometers from the main parish. The parish priest can celebrate Mass in these locations only once a month.
Pre-kindergarten and primary schools, open to all children regardless of faith, have become an essential tool for evangelization. The children learn about the infinite love Jesus has for them. They then go home, spreading the news to their parents.
One non-Christian family, whose child attended the school, sought out the local catechist. By bicycle, he traveled to their home almost daily and instructed them in the faith. All five members of the family received the greatest gift of all when they were baptized and received the Eucharist one Christmas morning."
Joy of newly baptized
A retired archbishop in Indonesia has also witnessed the joy of the newly baptized. "Indescribable joy and happiness was the joy and happiness on the faces of the newly baptized, but also in the hearts of the missionaries who saw their work rewarded by the strength of the Holy Spirit," said Archbishop Jacobus Duivenvoorde, of Merauke, Indonesia, speaking about the baptism of a class of Sunday school children.
"The children," he continued, "gather for catechetical instruction, but also have other needs fulfilled. They are fed, clothed, and given medical check-ups."
Archbishop Duivenvoorde stresses, "It is through the generous support of prayers and financial help from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith that we are able to reach out with the 'Good News' of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to teach so many of his great love."
This Christmas, won't you give a gift, through the Propagation of the Faith, so that Sisters in Sudan and Uganda, and catechists in Tanzania and Indonesia, and so many throughout the missions may continue to reach out with the love of Christ to young and old?
By supporting their work and witness you will be making a difference for the suffering poor of the missions, offering them the hope-filled "Good News" proclaimed by the angel that first Christmas, "a savior has been born for you."
This Christmas, too, let us join in prayer with Catholics worldwide in gratitude for the greatest of his gifts to us, his son. In prayer, we also ask the Lord to keep us always in his care and to offer his light, hope, and peace to a world so in need of him.
Thank you and may the Lord grant to you and to those you love many blessings this Christmas.
Msgr. Delbert Schmelzer is director of the Propagation of the Faith for the Diocese of Madison. Contributions may be sent to: P.O. Box 44983, Madison, WI 53744-4983.
Martyrs: Remembered at Christmas time
Why is the Solemnity of Christmas followed immediately by the feast of St. Stephen, the proto-martyr; then by the feast of St. John the Evangelist, who suffered the living martyrdom of exile; then by the feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs; and then by the commemoration of St. Thomas Becket, martyr?
Because martyrdom is part of the logic - the "theo-logic," if you will - of Christmas.
The angelic announcement of Christmas rightly promises "peace among men" (Luke 2:14).
But old Simeon, who lived in the borderland between the Old and New Covenants, knew that something else, something foreboding, was afoot in the birth of the Holy Child:
"Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) . . ." The "salvation . . . prepared in the presence of all peoples" would come through a sign of contradiction that lacerated a maternal heart (Luke 2:34-35, 30).
The suffering servant
With Christmas, for the world's salvation, the Son of God, the eternal Word, takes flesh, is born of the Virgin Mary - and is immediately thrust into the lists against the principalities and powers: in the first instance, Herod, who slaughters children to protect a shaky throne.
This Holy Child will become the man of sorrows, the embodiment of the suffering servant, shattered and almost unrecognizable. That was required to complete the work of salvation for which this Child was born. Christmas contains Good Friday - and, to be sure, Easter. But Good Friday first.
God's search for us
The Christmastide martyrs are a helpful reminder of this deep truth of Christian faith. Christianity is not man's search for God; Christianity is God's search for us - in history, where we live - and our learning to take the same path through that history that God takes.
That path leads to Calvary. "Calvary" can be lived in many ways: St. John's living martyrdom was different than the martyrdoms of St. Stephen and St. Thomas Becket, or the Holy Innocents. Still, the cave at Bethlehem opens, symbolically, to the north, where Calvary waits.
Over the past 26 years, Pope John Paul II has lifted up the witness of hundreds of modern martyrs, reminding us that martyrdom is not just something from the past, but is very much part of the living experience of the Church.
This past August, at his address on the day the church commemorates the martyrdom of John the Baptist, the Holy Father noted while "there may be relatively few who are called to make the supreme sacrifice," all of us "must be ready to give consistent witness each day, even at the cost of suffering and serious sacrifices."
Our commitment must be "heroic," if we are "not to give in, even in daily life, to the difficulties that urge us to compromise."
So it's not inappropriate - in fact, it's necessary - to remember our modern martyrs during this Christmas season. Throughout the world, 31 Catholics died for the faith in 2000; 33 more in 2001, as did 25 in 2002 and 14 in 2003, according to a Vatican agency that monitors these things. (The count is almost certainly higher.)
Whatever the circumstances of their deaths, their witness reminds us that the Child of Bethlehem and the crucified Jesus are one and the same savior.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Diocese of Madison, The Catholic Herald
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