ROME, DEC. 23, 2004 ( How John Paul II Redid Christmas; Archbishop Foley’s Yuletide Reflections

This is the 21st Christmas that the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Archbishop John Foley, is celebrating in Rome.

One of his duties over these years has been to give the commentary for the live broadcast for the Midnight Mass with John Paul II. For the American archbishop, the Christmas Eve Mass is one of the Vatican’s standout celebrations.

“I consider it a great privilege to do the commentary because it’s a marvelous work of evangelization,” he says.

Only is the broadcast reaching Catholics, he says, “but, there’s also an opportunity for others around the world who are watching casually, maybe even by accident, to understand what Catholics believe; why we believe it; why we worship in the way we do.”

Archbishop Foley points out that it is a time where many gain answers to their question “What is so wonderful about the Christian faith that more than 2 billion people in the world consider themselves Christians? — with more than 1 billion considering themselves Catholic Christians, united in one Church, under the Vicar of Christ, our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, the successor of Peter.”

The archbishop spoke about how John Paul II has influenced the celebration of Christmas in the Holy See. He notes that the Pope introduced the annual Christmas tree and Nativity scene into St. Peter’s Square.

“The Holy Father wanted to have the Christmas crib there so that families could come with their children and explain the story of the Nativity to them,” he says. “Each year a new type of Christmas Crib scene is constructed in St. Peter’s, unveiled on Christmas Eve and is left until February 2, the feast of the presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple.”

As the Crib serves as a powerful reminder of the season’s meaning, it certainly impacted the life of this Vatican official who considers Christmas as the anniversary of his priestly vocation.

“It was Christmas Day in my senior year of high school. I went back to my parish church after Christmas dinner and I knelt in front of the Crib and the church was otherwise completely empty at that time.

“I said, ‘Dear Lord, you’ve given me everything I have — my life, my family, my faith. You’ve been so good to me and I’d like to give it all back to you.'”

Fifty years later, Archbishop Foley has a chance, along with others from the Roman Curia and visitors to Rome, to contemplate the celebration in St. Peter’s Square, not just in front of the Crib but also by the enormous Christmas tree.

According to Archbishop Foley, the Holy Father also has his own, smaller tree erected in his private apartment, decorated with ornaments from his homeland. The Pope makes a point of celebrating Christmas with his “family,” according the archbishop.

“On Christmas Day, the Holy Father usually invites his Polish bishop friends who are here in Rome to have a traditional Christmas dinner with him so that he can relax on Christmas Day after a very taxing program in which he would have had the Christmas Midnight Mass and then with his greetings in about 60 languages, together with the Christmas message.”

The latter, also known as the message “urbi et orbi,” is a key ingredient of Christmas Day at the Vatican.

“The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and he’s also the universal pastor of the Church,” the archbishop explained. “So several times a year, specifically at Christmas and Easter, he gives a special blessing to the people of his diocese, ‘urbi,’ and to the people of the world, ‘orbi,’ his flock everywhere.

“This involves the invocation of all the saints, the blessing of God, and it carries with it a plenary indulgence which we mean as a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.” The blessing is valid even when received via radio or television.

Through such media, Archbishop Foley says, a multitude of countries “are able to be united with the Holy Father on Christmas Day in honoring God and in thanking God for having sent his Son, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to be born in a stable and ordered to show us how to live and ultimately how to die for our sins and make it possible for us to live forever.”