NEWARK, N.J. — Tickets for Masses, virtual holiday concerts, video Christmas cards, and drive-by Nativity scenes: It’s beginning to look a lot like a different sort of Christmas.
With COVID-19 contributing to the cancellation of Christmas pageants, caroling and some of the season’s most familiar traditions, many parishes in the Archdiocese of Newark and elsewhere have found creative new ways to engage the faithful this Christmas.
At Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey, every parish household received a gift bag hung on their front door. In it was a Nativity scene Christmas tree ornament, information about the parish and a heartfelt message from the pastor, Msgr. Ronald Rozniak.
The parish Christmas concert at Our Lady of Mount Carmel was held in person this year, but due to the pandemic, attendance was severely limited. The event was livestreamed to reach more parishioners, but instead of the entire choir, it featured the parish cantors. The traditional Christmas tree lighting in front of the church followed, but it was handled differently this time.
An extended Nativity scene was constructed at the church featuring the life of Jesus. It includes scenes from the Incarnation in Nazareth, the Savior’s birth in Bethlehem, and the Resurrection in Jerusalem.
This season, parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel were encouraged to share virtual Christmas cards. Families were asked to submit a 10-second video clip of themselves sharing a message or singing a carol.
The virtual messages will air before and after in-person Masses, livestreams, and will be available on the parish website and Facebook page throughout the Christmas season.
The point of all these efforts is to foster greater connectivity with the faithful despite a pandemic that discourages community, Msgr. Rozniak explained.
Father James Brown, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Bloomfield, New Jersey, also attended a workshop on reaching out organized by Newark Auxiliary Bishop Michael A. Saporito. His team at Sacred Heart came up with a giant outdoor Advent display and other ideas.
They kicked things off with a communications initiative called “Hearts Connected” in which staff reached out to every parish household with a postcard and phone call. This was a way to check in with parishioners, to pray with them, and also update email addresses.
“One of the things that the pandemic is letting us know is that things are not really going to go back exactly the way that they were,” Father Brown said. “The technology and those avenues of communication are going to be even more important.”
The parish installed four large banners promoting the messages of “Hope,” Love,” “Joy” and “Peace” on light poles in front of the church.
Sacred Heart is in downtown Bloomfield across from the town green near the main street where lots of people drive by. The church’s banners, candle, and a large sheet metal Nativity serve as great ways to evangelize to the community, said Father Brown.
“You have everybody at the stop light and at the bus stop looking up, ‘Gee, what are those Catholics up to now?’” he said. “But those simple things are great evangelizing opportunities and I hope that it catches somebody enough to say, ‘Gee, I want to check them out, see what they’re doing,’ and then maybe they’ll stay.”
Whatever happens, Jesus is still here with us, said Bishop Saporito.
“Whatever that celebration of Christmas will look like this year, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “The truth of the Advent/Christmas Seasons still lives. Jesus became one of us to save us from our sins, to inspire our everyday living and to lead us home to eternity.
“The light that is the Christmas celebration is the hope that Jesus brings to us. Let’s recognize it, embrace it, allow it to guide us as we bring it to others.”