Buon Natale or “Where did our Catholic stories go?”
I was speaking with an old friend the other day doing our usual lamenting over the Faith we knew as kids and we both agreed that the thing that is missing today are the stories.
Stories, you say? Yup. You know, the kind of stories that bring laughter to our bellies and tears to our eyes. The kind of Catholic stories that are not slam-sessions on nuns and priests or a lackadaisical nod about something that happened at the parish that week.
Growing up Catholic you have a legacy of stories and experiences that keeps your Faith whole even in the darkest of days. To those who are nodding their heads right now, you know what I mean. To those who are reading this, still not understanding my ranting, let me tell you a Catholic story… A Christmas story about growing up Catholic in an Italian family on Christmas Eve…
So, pull up a chair, grab something Christmasy to drink, and let me tell you about my Grandpop…
Antonio Constantino Guerra came to this country via Ellis Island with a wife and a pack of kids including my Dad (who was 6 months old at the time). From the moment he stepped on the shores of this country he was truly American. He never returned to Italy he whole life…He insisted he was American and that he would not ever leave the shores of his new country. He was..a true Patriot.
Most of all, he was a good Catholic. He wasn’t a showy Catholic. He was the kind of Catholic everybody wants to be today. He lived the Faith, day in and day out. He was my inspiration for “Always Catholic”. Grandpop was Always Catholic, everyday. He had a phenomenal prayer life and did it quietly, without show. Wow!
I could talk to you all day about him, but let’s get to the Christmas Eve thing before Santa is tapping on my shoulder…LOL!
I was five years old and of course mesmerized by Christmas. What 5 year old in America with a big Italian family wouldn’t be? Christmas was so overwhelming, it even kept me quiet, sometimes…
This particular Christmas Eve, it had been snowing lightly all day and was like something out of a Christmas movie. My dad, A Display Designer in NY always decorated the house in and out like it was a set for a Christmas show. Never gaudy, truly magnificent. The splendor of growing up like that was a gift I will never forget.
Well, the house was decked, the Nativity in its’ place of prominence (sans Baby Jesus-He’s placed in the crib after Midnight Mass) and the smells of Christmas wafting through the house.
We, like many Italians in America celebrate Christmas Eve as if that’s the holiday. The Festa of the Seven Fishes is a feast that lasts from late afternoon until about 4 am. The meal is something to behold and our only break is to go to Mass at Midnight and then back again for the second party.
My story though centers around the time I spent after Mass with Grandpop. We all left for our parish about eleven o’clock pm. My grandfather was revered in the parish so our family always got a pew without having to worry about going too early.
Mass, of course, was still Latin, the church beautiful in the Italianate style and the experience ethereal. After Mass concluded, the tradition was to visit the creche and to say a prayer to the Baby Jesus and take a piece of straw from the Nativity to place with the palm from Eastertime on the Crucifix at home.
The parish was predominately Italian of course and the church always filled with old ladies in black dresses (why always black??? LOL!) and their veils and their Rosaries. They loved walking around after Mass going up to statues rubbing the hand of a particular Saint and praying at all of the side altars. This night however, was reserved for the Nativity and the Baby Jesus.
As the many people milled around after Mass, my Grandpop took me by the hand and led me up to the creche. He lifted me up so I could reach the straw. We then knelt together and prayed. I looked over at him and saw a tear roll down his cheek. I have never been more moved to this day by this simple display of faith. It shaped me for life as a Catholic. I may have been 5 at the time, but I will never forget that moment.
As we finished praying, as if almost on cue, a voice started to spontaneously sing from the back of the church. One by one,, the many people still there joined in…My Grandpop got up, picked me up and sang with the people in front of the Manger. I will never forget this Christmas hymn. It is probably the most favorite of Italians, far and wide. Maybe now, it’s becoming forgotten, but I play it always at Christmas and particularly on Christmas Eve. I want to share it today and hope you feel as I did that Christmas Eve when my Grandpop held me tight singing, his tears rolling down his face. The voices joining him sealed my heart with love for this Catholic Faith.
So, Grandpop, I pray you are in Heaven this Christmas Eve, singing Tu Scende dalle Stelle with all those old ladies to the Baby Jesus. Then, tell everybody the story how you gave me my Faith, my Christmas present that never ends…
I pray that all of you will make your own Catholic stories. It’s important, our Catholic Faith depends on it.,,