I’ll be home for Christmas and, then again, I won’t be. By the age of seventy-one a Norbertine priest can feel at home in many places, especially for the celebration of this very family-centered feast of the year. I’d could be at home in Casoli di Atri (Provincia di Teramo), the ancestral village of my paternal grandfather, in the Italian Abruzzo where after the Midnight Mass (yes, Virginia, in some places the Christmas Midnight Mass is still celebrated at midnight!) the paesani gather in the cold piazza in front of the church to share hot wine and panettone. Or I could be at home in Naples, Florida with my Mom and the families of two of my brothers as they gather for the Christmas Eve Vigilia of spaghetti with anchovies, bacala, smelts, and the American additions of crab and/or shrimp cocktail, and shellfish (we never knew that we were restricted to seven sea creatures). Or I could be here in De Pere where I celebrated four Christmases of my life as a Norbertine seminarian (1961 – 1964). St. Norbert Abbey is a place set apart to celebrate the Masses of Christmas and I will never forget the splendor cultus of Christmas pontifical high Mass when Abbot Sylvester Killeen presided and preached. But I will celebrate Christmas at home, my “ground zero” home, Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, PA, in the church of my profession and in the circle of my Norbertine brothers and the Abbey assembly of men and women who have supported us over the last fifty years. There are still a few of them alive who trudged through knee-high snow for the first Mass celebrated in our then spanking new church – Christmas Midnight 1966. Father John Neitzel, the superior of the community was trapped by the snow in a neighboring parish. So Father Hubert Beaudoin presided at the Mass with this little band of resident Norbertines and young parents and children who had walked through the snow to the church. The A-shaped stained glass windows above the altar of the church were still not installed and the opening was covered with plastic. During the Mass the howling wind forced some snow through the edges of the plastic and glittering flakes of white descended on the sanctuary.
Though after-the-fact depictions of the first Norbertine Christmas (1121) give the appearance of high splendor at Prémontré (France), it could not have been so. Norbert had only settled in his band of followers at the site the previous spring. This band of brothers and sisters (the narrative recounts about 24 to 40 priests and several hundred lay men and women – it was a village as much as a monastery!) meeting for prayer in and around the ruins of the chapel of St. John the Baptist in the woods of St-Gobain would have undoubtedly been weathering the cold in wooden houses. Prémontré 1121 was much more like Christmas 1777 at Valley Forge than Christmas 2013 at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere or Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, PA (just a few miles away from Valley Forge). Despite what must have been severe cold and their vegetarian diet, they had their love to keep them warm. They had the love of Christ to bind them one in heart and mind together on the way to God. And so, at the preparation of the bread and wine in the course of the Mass, they came forward one by one and read the text they had written earlier that day: “I, name, in offering give myself to the Church of St, Mary and St. John the Baptist at Prémontré and I promise
This giving of oneself to a church is the particular branding of canons regular, the class of consecrated religious to which Norbertines belong. We promise to stay put for all our lives serving the people of the local church. There were 569 Christmases at Prémontré before it was closed down by the French Revolution. Christmas 2013 will be the 892nd Christmas celebrated by the sons and daughters – priests and nuns, lay brothers, sisters and associates – of St. Norbert. We’ll be singing of Christ’s birth in and among us at l’Abbaye de Mondaye in Normandy, France; at Kinshasa in the Congo, at Heeswijk (Berne Abbey) in The Netherlands and in her daughter houses in De Pere, Wisconsin; Jamtara, India; and Windberg, Germany. The song of the angels intoned at Bethlehem and echoed at Prémontré continues to be song in melodies ever ancient, ever new.
So I’ll be home for Christmas but my mind and heart and prayers will be at the many homes I have. I will be thinking of and praying especially for and with the home I’m back at here at St. Norbert College where fifty years ago this year I celebrated the 842nd Norbertine Christmas across the Fox River at St. Norbert Abbey.