Christmas lights up New York City
By Edoardo Giribaldi
"New York is at its best at Christmas," affirmed Fr. Boniface Endorf, Pastor at St. Joseph Church, one of the oldest Catholic buildings in New York City, situated in the Greenwich Village area.
The atmosphere is the one that movies have been recounting for years. “The grand Christmas tree of Rockefeller Center is up and shimmering, holiday displays have returned to store windows, performances of the Nutcracker Ballet and Messiah Oratorio are in full swing, and restaurants offer tempting Christmas day menus,” said Rev. Mark David Janus, listing just some of the factors that make New York, in the collective imaginary, the city where Christmas comes alive.
One effect of the pandemic outbreak was the scaling down, in the past two years, of most Christmas celebrations that, aside from a purely folkloristic aspect, used to represent instants of healthy social coexistence, with people coming together to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord. Fr. Angelo Plodari, parish priest at Our Lady of Pompeii Church, explained how strong the "desire to return to a normal life" is in people's eyes.
The pandemic aftermaths
According to data compiled by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, since the first Covid-19 infection registered in New York City, on March 1, 2020, more than 30,000 cases were recorded in just under a month, making the city the most affected area in the United States. Two weeks later, New York City had already registered more infections than China, the United Kingdom, or Iran.
“People are made to live together, befriend each other, find shelter in family life,” Rev. Janus reflected, underlining how the long days of isolation created a sense of “spiritual anxiety.”
The three interviewees agreed on the fact that "the greatest difficulty" experienced throughout the pandemic peak was "the loss of community," causing "loneliness and even depression" due to the restrictions imposed. "What we missed the most," explained Fr. Plodari, "were the activities in preparation for Christmas" and also "seeing relationships with so many friends extinguished."
The process of rebuilding communities is not an easy one. As Rev. Janus noted, "The most recent research shows only 60% of the people who had been attending Catholic Churches on Sundays have returned, whether that is because of caution or people have gotten out of the habit or are finding spiritual nourishment elsewhere is unknown."
However, as the Nativity of the Lord approaches, Fr. Endorf described how his parish "experienced a great growth" in its ministry. New groups were formed: "mothers groups, women groups, men groups, married groups," The common denominator is the desire to experience "a sense of being together."
"We need a Savior"
The reason behind the need for aggregation, typical of Christmas celebrations, is to be found, according to Fr. Endorf, in the troubled times we are currently experiencing. "There has been a sense," as far as the secular culture is concerned, that we are living "one crisis after another: the pandemic, war, inflation, and you can add other things to this list of seemingly intractable problems."
All of this has arisen, in humans' hearts, the conviction that "as humanity, we cannot save ourselves, and we do need a Savior. That is what Christmas is about: God entered into our history and world and came to save us. There is a real sense that that's exactly what we need," Fr. Endorf affirmed.
The homeless stigma
New York could easily be considered a double-faced reality. You cannot look up at the city's skyscrapers without, before, setting your eyes on the multiple homeless people living on the edges of the streets.
According to the numbers provided by The Coalition for the Homeless, in October 2022, there were 65,633 homeless people, including 20,751 homeless children, "sleeping each night in New York City's main municipal shelter system."
Several organizations have set up numerous initiatives to help the people most in need have a glimpse of the typical Christmas warmth. "With a group of young volunteers," Fr. Plodari recounted, "we made an evening visit to some areas of the city, especially those near the subway, bringing a sandwich, a coffee, or a piece of clothing."
"Feed God's people"
Joe Genova, one of the organizers of the food pantry that takes place in front of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Brooklyn Heights, has a curious way of experiencing Christmas, which derives from New York City's way of being characterized by "marketing, marketing, marketing. But we also have a renewed sense that the truth is larger than all that. So, I buy a ridiculously expensive Christmas tree, not because I think that is what Christ wants, but I want to support the hard-working people who plant and grow them."
Mr. Genova highlighted the "huge need" to provide a meal "to God's people," especially in current times. "By the time this goes 'to press,' we will have provided nearly 130,000 meals to people who could not afford food at Christmas. Our pantry will operate during the week before Christmas."
This concern is shared by Rev. Janus. "Food banks are stretched to beyond capacity, the destitute are joined by working families whose income cannot meet the rising costs of food, housing and fuel, much less toys for Christmas."
Material and spiritual poverty
Sometimes, however, poverty in people's hearts is more subtle. "New York is a city run for commerce and business," Fr. Endorf pointed out. As a result, people can get so caught up in their busy lives that they end up losing "their spiritual element, the need to grow, to know God."
To deal with what Fr. Endorf called "spiritual poverty," one of the interventions made by St. Joseph Church is the installment of the first perpetual adoration chapel in Manhattan. The goal is for people to "encounter God and be transformed by his Mercy."
The hope of the Christmas message
"New York City," concluded Rev. Janus, "needs the hope of the Christmas message more than ever." A message that he thought was beautifully summarized by Cardinal Walter Kasper.
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