Putting Christ Back Into Christmas Carols

Interview With Director of Diocesan Initiative

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By Karna Swanson

TRENTON, New Jersey, DEC. 14, 2009 (Zenit.org).- It is often said that to sing is to pray twice. A diocesan initiative in New Jersey this Advent is showing that singing — particularly Christmas carols — can also be a very effective tool for evangelization.

Christmas carols “contain the kernel of the Gospel message,” says John Boucher, the director of the Office of Evangelization and Parish Development for the Diocese of Trenton. “Singing them opens up hearts to the good news about Jesus, what he has done for us, and what he wants to do in our lives right here, right now.”

To this end, Boucher, along with his wife, Therese, created the Christmas Carol Festival (CCF), which aims to reintroduce faithful and non-practicing Catholics to the message of Christmas through singing traditional, relgious Christmas carols.

Last year, CCF was held in six locations around the diocese and drew about 1,800 people. This year nine events were organized in Trenton and the surrounding counties, and organizers anticipate some 2,500 participants.

In this interview with ZENIT, Boucher talks about why he and his wife began the Christmas Carol Festival, and how it is helping to restore the true message of Christmas to the holiday season.

ZENIT: When was the first festival? What led you to begin them?

Boucher: Christmas Carol Festival (CCF) is an annual evangelization project that encourages parishes, families or groups (retreat houses, Knights of Columbus, ministries, etc.) to use our rich tradition of Christmas carols and hymns to reach out to inactive Catholics and the unchurched. The goal of this nine-month process is to help people encounter Jesus within the community of the Catholic Church through invitations to sing, through the festivals and through follow-up events.

My wife Therese and I noticed that our diocese, like many in the United States, has a growing number of inactive Catholics, and the biggest single subgroup is young adults in their 20s and 30s. Only 8-11% of this age group is connected to parish life. However, many of them have told us that they wish they could sing religious Christmas carols in a relaxed setting during December. Such events are part of their most cherished childhood memories.

We also noticed that during December, more than 70% of all religious searches on the Internet are for the words of Christmas carols. We began to wonder, “Could we put together a resource for parishes who would like to respond to this interest in religious Christmas carols? Could carols become a stepping stone to evangelizing inactive Catholics?”

The result is the process called, Christmas Carol Festival.

So in 2007, Therese and I put together a draft guidebook and trained about 150 parish leaders to conduct local festivals. That first year, about 350 people in our diocese participated in festivals. In 2008, 1,500-1,800 people participated. And during this current year, a conservative estimate is that 2,000-2,500 will come to festivals.

ZENIT: What happens during a Christmas Carol Festival?

Boucher: The CCF event (45-90 minutes long) involves singing religious carols together in non-liturgical space during the pre-Christmas season (Thanksgiving through Christmas), because inactive and unchurched people are unfamiliar with Advent. At this event carol singing is the most important activity. But there are also short witnesses (two or three people sharing ways that Jesus has come alive for them), prayers before the empty manger, the reading of one of the Christmas stories from Luke or Matthew, while the Baby Jesus is placed in the manger.
At the end of the festival everyone receives printed invitations to Christmas Day Mass, Advent offerings, upcoming Bible studies, parish programs such as “Catholics Returning Home” or “Awakening Faith” (for those who have been away from the Church for a while) and/or a “Jesus in January” evening that includes the blessing of calendars, brief teachings, prayer and small group sharing.

One parish experienced a significant increase in Bible studies and parish retreats because of the festival. Another noted several people who chose to participate in the RCIA or in inactive Catholics programs.   

The festival event itself is just the tip of the iceberg. Other important features include training Catholics in how to invite their inactive and unchurched families, relatives, and friends to such a parish gathering. The whole process includes a six-month preparation phase that runs from July to December and a Post-CCF three-month follow-up phase, designed for those who come and want to know more about our Catholic faith. The whole process is described at www.christmascarolfestival.com and on several video sharing websites, like our own diocesan video sharing site, www.dottube.org.

ZENIT: Why is it important for people to learn Christmas carols?

Boucher: For the past two generations religious Christmas carols have been dropped from use in schools and at civic celebrations in the United States. So it is up to us as regular church-goers to step in and let God’s voice be heard. These carols are important because they transport us back to Bethlehem and teach about the life of Jesus Christ in a non-threatening way. Carols contain the kernel of the Gospel message. They proclaim Jesus through his scriptural titles, like Christ, king, word, God-with-us, messiah, savior, Mary’s child and Emanuel. Singing them opens up hearts to the good news about Jesus, what he has done for us, and what he wants to do in our lives right here, right now. People also experience a shared faith, and a new unity with God and with the community.

ZENIT: Which Christmas carol seems to have the biggest impact, and why?

Boucher: Certainly, one that has the biggest impact is “Silent Night.” It is the most loved, sung, recorded, and translated religious song in history. We use it during the festivals as doorway to prayer centered on the infant Jesus. Its promise of peace is a very healing experience for many people who come.

Perhaps the biggest miracle of all is that carols give parishes new confidence in the message of the Incarnation and in their own capacity to awaken new faith. Benedict XVI describes what is possible when we find ways to share faith through carols when he wrote “Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope” (“Seek That Which Is Above,” Ignatius Press, 2007).

ZENIT: What do you hope people will carry away from this event?

Boucher: We hope that the Christmas Carol Festival process will become a successful attempt at evangelizing friends, family and co-workers. And we pray that many people, parishes, and groups will be stirred to a new zeal, a new passion for sharing the Good News. Granted, it is just one opportunity for helping others meet Jesus Christ in the Catholic community, but it is a very appealing and successful new first step for those who have used it.

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