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On this last Christmas before he retires, his 48th year of presiding over alleluias and not-so-silent nights, the Rev. Raymond O’Donnell — Father Jerry to his flock — will stand before parishioners and visitors to deliver his homily for this sacred Christian holiday.He will begin by talking about his dog.O’Donnell will share with folks that he has no idea why his dog, a 9-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Monsignor, has to smell every bush and every tree. He couldn’t know unless he became a dog himself.Then he will transition from dog to God — and the crux of Christmas.
God had the same dilemma, he will explain. He imagines God asking himself, “How do I tell these people, these wonderful creatures I created, how much I love them in a way they can understand, unless I become one of them?”And so, Jesus was born.O’Donnell will give this homily on Thursday and Friday — Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — at All Hallows Catholic Church in La Jolla, where he has been pastor for the past 16 years. “The bottom-line message is God loves us more than we will ever be able to comprehend and that’s the whole reason why God became one of us,” he tells me. “We would never understand what’s in God’s mind unless God could take on human flesh and talk to us in words we can understand.”
He remembers a poster at his seminary that said God doesn’t make junk. “I think that’s very true,” O’Donnell says. “And I think a lot of people don’t believe that.”I wondered out loud what the impact would be if people really believed they were worthy of this love. His answer: “I think we would be a lot happier and a lot freer and a lot more accepting of ourselves — and a lot more accepting of one another.”O’Donnell, who is 74 with hair as white as the clerical collar on his neck, is sitting in his office, flanked by his beloved Native American artwork, talking about his nearly half-century as a Catholic priest in the San Diego diocese. And about his Christmases — past, present and future.Christmas past
O’Donnell’s mother was nearing the end of her life. She had dementia and was bedridden much of the time. On that Christmas several years ago, he said Mass for her in the bedroom, with his father and sister and the mother’s caregiver.
When he suggested they sing “Silent Night,” something miraculous happened.“Mom, who often thought I was her tennis instructor, knew every verse of ‘Silent Night.’ I was just astonished.”It is one of his favorite Christmas carols and every time he hears it, he thinks of his mother.His other favorite carol is a more contemporary one, “Stars Flung Like Diamonds,” written by Father Michael Joncas, a Minnesota priest and composer of church hymns.
“It’s beautiful,” says O’Donnell, his voice starting to choke with emotion as he talks about it. “It has really sound theology and beautiful poetic imagery and I just love it so much.”Being a priest at Christmas comes with a schedule that can rival Santa Claus. Last year, for example, with All Hallows packed to overflowing, O’Donnell said four Masses on Christmas Eve and two on Christmas Day. He estimates upwards of 1,500 people participated.He confesses that Christmas is one of the toughest times to preach. “You’re preaching to the choir (the regulars) and you’re preaching to a number of people who only come on Christmas.”Don’t get him wrong. He’s delighted to see the new faces. It’s just that he wants to make Christmas meaningful for both groups. To give them each something to think about and to take home with them — and, perhaps, to make a new Christmas memory.
Which brings us to this Christmas and a pernicious grinch named COVID who has teamed up with the Grim Reaper to batter us with waves of record-setting deaths, a resurgence of jobless claims and another lockdown here and in much of California.One can only wonder what kind of miracle it will take for the glad tidings — much less the comfort and joy — to be heard over this cacophony of woe.Christmas present
A wistfulness creeps into the priest’s voice. “I don’t think we’re going to be singing any Christmas carols this year,” he says.The airborne pandemic has seen to that.
In compliance with the state and the diocese, he’s holding Masses outdoors. Parishioners wear masks and are socially distanced. Music is provided by a cantor and an accompanist.O’Donnell also posts a daily video on All Hallows’ website, hoping to stay connected to parishioners who feel safer apart. “It’s really sad,” he says. “There are people I hope I’ll see again sometime, but there are people who are just scared to death to come to Mass.”He’s been spending Advent, the four-week season of preparation for Christmas, trying to boost the spirits of his flock with upbeat messages online and at Mass.In one, O’Donnell told the story of a church’s Nativity pageant. When the angels were summoned forward, children dressed in white rose from the pews and crowded around the stable scene at the front. One of the littlest angels was at the rear of the crowd, jockeying and straining to get a glimpse of the baby Jesus.
Finally, frustrated and exasperated, the little girl yelled, “Let Jesus show!”“May that little angel’s cry be our own prayer,” O’Donnell said. Let Jesus show as you go to work, to school, to the store and to your homes.In our meeting over Zoom, I asked him to elaborate. “What I’m trying to say is let them see Jesus by the way you forgive, by the way you love, by the way you reach out to the poor.”
If we did that, he says, we would leave the world a better place because we were in it. He adds: “Even if you can make it a teensy-weeny bit better, then you’ve done what you’re supposed to do.”When the conversation returns to plans for this Christmas, the priest shakes his head. “That’s the hardest part about ministering during COVID-19 is the uncertainty. I know what I’ve done in the past. I know what I would like to do, but whether I’m going to be allowed to do it or not is sort of beyond my control.”He anticipates fewer people will attend holiday Masses — partly because of the renewed stay-at-home mandate issued earlier this month and because “it is dark and cold” outdoors. So All Hallows will hold one less service on Christmas Eve (Mass times: 2, 4 and 6 p.m.). It will hold one less Mass on Christmas Day (service at 9 a.m.) but that cutback already was under consideration because most of the congregation prefers to worship on Christmas Eve. In addition to these in-person gatherings, there will be a recorded Christmas Mass posted on the church’s website on Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.For those not looking forward to ushering in Christmas in the open air, O’Donnell offers this perspective: remember, Jesus was born in a stable.
Since his ordination in 1972 at his home church, St. Rose of Lima in Chula Vista, O’Donnell has worked at the diocese, taught in the seminary and served three parishes, including being the founding pastor of St. Luke Catholic Church in Rancho San Diego. He speaks reverently of the faith parishioners have put in him over these past 48 years. “To be invited into people’s innermost lives just because you are wearing a little piece of white plastic around your neck is awesome to me. The trust that people have really moves me to tears sometimes.”When he retires next June, he plans to move into a condo he owns and would like to do some traveling (if all goes well, the COVID vaccines should be readily available by then). Maybe he’ll go to New Mexico for Santa Fe’s famed Canyon Road Farolito Walk on Christmas Eve. And to Yosemite National Park for its storied Bracebridge Dinner Christmas pageant. He also wants to continue to help out, as needed, in parishes here. “I will be a priest forever,” he says. “That’s who I am. It’s my last Christmas as a pastor, but not as a priest.”
His words about being a priest forever reminded me that there is no expiration date on faith. Nor is there one on Christmas.Whether it’s bundled up outdoors with carols hummed behind masks or the Gospel reading delivered on YouTube or Facebook, Christmas will happen. Just like it did — in one fashion or another — during wars, influenza, economic depression and all the other worst of times.And this Christmas, Father Jerry will be there with a story about a dog named Monsignor, a baby named Jesus and a very special message that’s heaven sent.Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a former president of the Religions News Association. Email: [email protected]
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