Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Everyone has a need to belong

By ARCHBISHOP GREGORY J. HARTMAYER, OFM Conv. | Published December 24, 2020  | En Español

There is something about this time of year that stirs up old memories and stories to be told to the next generation. Grandparents tell stories to their grandchildren, and siblings retell stories about their parents.

This is a true story.

In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, there is a magnificent modern cathedral in a wealthy neighborhood in the city. The name of the cathedral is Mary, Our Queen. Before the building of that new cathedral, the archdiocese used a beautiful old church now known as the Basilica of the Assumption, which is in the downtown area. This basilica is the oldest cathedral in the United States. Construction began in 1806. The architect who designed this basilica also designed the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Many worshippers feel at home in the old basilica because it looks and smells like a church from the past.  That basilica is a temple of religious tradition.

A serious threat to the basilica’s rich tradition came one year just a few days before Christmas. The Christmas crib and Nativity scene had been set up in a prominent space in the sanctuary.

When the priest arrived for the 5 p.m. Mass, the sacristan immediately greeted the priest with the startling news; someone had put Snoopy in the Nativity scene.

Some people, for whom tradition was sacred, wanted Snoopy out of the manger. Other parishioners, however, were delighted with the new visitor at the crib. In fact, word was getting around Baltimore about Snoopy and the baby Jesus, and parents were beginning to bring their children to see the new Nativity scene in the very old basilica.

There in the midst of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the shepherds dressed in traditional Florentine clothes, was a stuffed Snoopy doll.

Nobody knew who put Snoopy in the crib. The best guess was that a child simply wanted to give God her favorite toy.  For that reason, the pastor at the time, Msgr. Love (I am not making this up), declared that, despite tradition, Snoopy stays. Snoopy belongs.

I would like to think that the one most happy to welcome Snoopy into the crèche was St. Joseph, the one whom the gospel calls “just.”

When faced with the dilemma of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph breaks with tradition and adopts Jesus. Joseph gives to Jesus what we all look for in life—a name, a home, a family and a sense of belonging.

Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus are depicted in a 2018 Christmas crèche exhibit at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. Photo By Michael Alexander

In adopting Jesus as his own child, Joseph followed the example of the just God that is found throughout the Old Testament. He was a just God who always adopted the most helpless victims—orphans.

Orphans are not just those without parents. Orphans are people denied rights, who have no voice in government, the unborn, minorities, the undocumented, the unwanted and the unemployed.

The good news of the Scriptures is that God adopts orphans and gives them a name, a new identity and a new beginning. God assures all of us, especially those of us who at times feel like orphans, that our God is Emmanuel and is with us. He will never abandon us. There is an innate need in each of us to belong, that wants a name and an identity.

As baptized Christians, we have a name. We are children of God. God has a name. It is Emmanuel. God is with us. We have a family in the church, and we have a sense of belonging.

In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, we are making a special effort to welcome home Catholics who, for whatever reason, have drifted away. We want them to come home. We want them to feel at home, and let us keep that intention in our prayers.

God sends each one of us into this world with a special message to deliver, a special song to sing and a special act of love to bestow. No one else can speak our special message. No one else can sing our special song. No one else can bestow our special act of love. It is ours to do. God created each of us for a purpose. If we do not speak our message, sing our song, or perform our act of love, then a part of God’s plan goes unfulfilled and a part of God’s glory goes unseen.

None of us in this archdiocese today is too young to speak our message or too old to sing our song or too weak to perform our act of love. Regardless of who we are, we have a mission in this world. God himself has given it to us.

As quiet and unassuming as Joseph was, he provided a warm and loving home in which the child Jesus was raised.

I do not know if Snoopy still snuggles with the cattle in the Basilica’s crèche. I would like to think that he does. I would like to think that he still belongs. Maybe, he will be found in our Nativity scene, waiting to greet the arrival of the newborn king. His presence there will remind us that Jesus welcomes us all into his life and into the life of the church.

What I do know is that if we really want to capture the true spirit of Christmas this year, we could take a cue from the just man Joseph and call someone by name, give someone a sense of dignity and a sense of belonging.

We, too, have the mission and the power to make everyone realize that we are all children of God.