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Lenten practices

Lent runs from Feb. 14 to April 1. Ash Wednesday (Feb. 14) and Good Friday (March 30) are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence. For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards. If possible, the fast on Good Friday is continued until the Easter Vigil (on Holy Saturday night) as the “paschal fast” to honor the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus, and to prepare ourselves to share more fully and to celebrate more readily his Resurrection. More information on fast and abstinence can be found at

Deacon Kyle Eller: How should we respond to ‘prayer shaming’?

I’m not sure exactly when I first encountered the phenomenon of “prayer shaming,” but I do remember how deeply it offended me. I still find it one of the most disturbing turns our culture has taken in the past few years. (And that’s saying something.)

If you pay attention to current events, you have encountered it too. According to the Internet, pundits, and many politicians, we are now supposed to be upset when someone says victims of some tragedy are in her “thoughts and prayers.”

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

The idea is that saying we’re praying for someone means we’re not “doing something.” The implication is that saying we’re praying is just putting a pious face on indifference or even an opposition to solving problems.

The most common place this comes up these days is mass shootings and the issue of gun control, although I have seen it in other contexts too, perhaps the most unlikely of which was a conservative Christian Facebook friend dismissing prayer (in contrast to military solutions) as a response to terrorism.

There are many things wrong with this. Most egregious is that treating prayer as an ineffectual waste of time is blasphemy, used as social pressure to enforce practical atheism. It is an attempt to coerce everyone to act as though God did not exist or face the consequence of being considered a rube at best or monster at worst.

Another obvious problem is the harsh personal judgment prayer shaming involves. I have no doubt there are hypocrites who claim to pray in order to appear as though they care about things they don’t care about. But I wouldn’t accuse someone of that without overwhelming evidence. Does disagreeing about gun control really qualify? I suggest obviously not.

Just in the interest of full disclosure on that subject, I’m very open minded about it. I’m not a big gun guy, although I have training and experience with them. I don’t for a second think that guns are the main cause of (or solution for) mass violence — it seems beyond dispute to me that the disease is a deeper crisis of meaning and communion. At the same time, treating symptoms can be worthwhile, and I’m open to the possibility some particular gun regulation could help.

There are intelligent and good faith people and rational arguments on both sides of that important debate. Pretending, instead, that everyone on the other side is some inhuman monster contributes nothing but bullying and character assassination. To do this by attacking prayer, one of the noblest and deepest responses of the human heart, makes it even more toxic and destructive.

The question remains: How should we, as Catholic Christians, respond to prayer shaming?

The glib but true answer is that we should pray more and act more effectively. The two go together.

Sometimes prayer is all we really have, but usually God calls us both to prayer and to action. St. James tells us, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16).

And while God does sometimes work miracles, most of the time he works through secondary causes, like us. If my child is sick and I pray for healing, I know from the outset that it’s likely he will work through a doctor, and when that happens, we rightly thank both God and the doctor.

In fact, this is one of the reasons our prayer is so important: It’s essential to making our action fruitful. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, “without me you can do nothing” (15:5). As countless spiritual writers attest and countless saints’ lives demonstrate, it is through prayer — through the interior life — that our actions really become effective.

So putting prayer and action in opposition to each other is a fatal mistake likely to sap our action of its vitality and effectiveness. Those in a position to act for good have all the more reason to pray. Acting with God’s help is far better than acting without it.

We need God’s wisdom, too. This is all the more true when it comes to problems that are deep and difficult and seemingly intractable, and solutions are complicated and murky and partial, full of subtle trade-offs and unintended consequences. Many of our deep problems are like that, despite the fact that we live in an arrogant time, when many people seem to approach the world like overgrown high school sophomores, who have their surefire “simple, obvious solutions” no one before them was smart enough or good-willed enough to try.

Coming to God in prayer demands the opposite approach — the humility of not having all the answers and recognizing part of the problem is in me, in my own limits, my own brokenness, my own pride.

And of course the truth is that God does act, usually mysteriously, in his providence. Sometimes the Berlin Wall does really fall without a shot fired. Why wouldn’t we ask him to come to our aid in these problems, in his time and in his way? Why wouldn’t we want to stay close to him and discern where he is acting?

So yes, it’s glib but true. Our response to prayer shaming ought to be that we pray more and therefore act more effectively. The two go together.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at

Two speakers coming for annual women’s conference

The sixth annual diocesan Women of Faith Conference Feb. 24 at Marshall School in Duluth, centered on the theme “Beyond Me,” will bring in two headline speakers, for the first time including a man.

Father Jim Sichko, a full-time evangelist and preacher who travels the country with storytelling, humor, and music, is one of the Papal Missionaries of Mercy Pope Francis named during the Year of Mercy in 2016 — one of only 100 in the United States. He will be the first speaker, with two talks — “#GiveandReceive” and “Six Steps to Being a Catholic Christian Leader.”

Father Jim Sichko Teresa Tomeo
Father Jim Sichko Teresa Tomeo

Closing out the day will be Teresa Tomeo, host of a daily radio talk show called “Catholic Connection” and a well-known speaker and journalist, who will be giving talks called “Beyond Me, My Selfie, and I” and “Beyond Sunday — Being a 24-7 Catholic.”

Hilaire Hauer, who serves on the planning committee for the conference, said there are some other new twists to the event this year too.

“We are so blessed that women throughout the diocese travel the distance to Duluth to share this experience together, and so we thought we would reserve a few hotel rooms so that those who could would have the chance to make a ‘Girls’ Weekend’ out of it,” she said.

That effort has been assisted by the Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery, who are offering rooms at the new Center for Spirituality and Enrichment at a special $50 a night rate.

This year’s women’s conference will offer ample opportunity for prayer, with perpetual adoration throughout the day and the weekend vigil Mass with Bishop Paul Sirba to close the event. Before that, there will be praise and worship featuring local Catholic musician Eric Cyr, who will be debuting a song he composed for the conference.

Father Sichko’s booking came about in a unique way, Hauer said. “How we came to find him was that our conference committee chair experienced a retreat with him in Kansas City, and she was so moved by that experience that she actually called him directly, and he said yes,” Hauer said. “Praise God for these experiences!”

The conference runs from 7:30 a.m. through Mass, which begins at 4:15 p.m. The day also includes opportunities for confession. Cost is $30, with an additional $10 late fee after Feb. 10. (Materials and lunch are also not guaranteed after that date.)

“We have a high level of interest in the conference and it grows each year,” Hauer said. “It’s exciting to see all that is happening throughout the diocese, and it’s amazing to see nearly 500 women making the day of it.”

— By Deacon Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross

CRS Rice Bowl is back, asks Catholics to ‘share the journey’

Pope Francis has asked Catholics to “Share the Journey” with migrants and refugees aground the world. Catholic Relief Services’ Rice Bowl offers Catholics in the United States a way to encounter Lent, to encounter the causes of migration and displacement, and to learn about the challenges faced by families around the world in their dioceses, parishes, and homes.

CRS Rice Bowl, the agency’s flagship Lenten program, now in its fifth decade, will begin once again on Ash Wednesday – Feb. 14 – giving Catholics throughout the country an opportunity to encounter the stories of people in need around the world.

“From CRS’ work in more than 100 countries, we know that people do not want to leave their homes, that they do so because they feel they have no other choice,” said Joan Rosenhauer, executive vice president of church engagement. “Lenten sacrifices contributed through CRS Rice Bowl help give them that choice by providing sustenance and livelihoods in communities around the world.”

Started as an ecumenical effort in the diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1975, CRS Rice Bowl soon spread across the country as it called on Catholics to perform a simple act of Lenten sacrifice — substitute a lowcost meatless meal for more expensive dining once a week during Lent and put the money saved in a cardboard rice bowl.

That concept remains at the heart of the program, even as it has expanded to include broader Lenten faith enrichment through a wide variety of resources available for the millions of Catholics who participate. These include prayer resources, a daily Lenten calendar, weekly stories of hope that introduce families from around the world, and recipes from various countries for meatless meals that can be enjoyed on Fridays during Lent. Funds collected in the rice bowls, which are turned in at the end of Lent, are distributed both around the world and in local communities to combat hunger — 75 percent of every donation goes to CRS programming in targeted countries worldwide, while 25 percent remains in the local diocese from which the donation came, supporting initiatives that help alleviate poverty.

Last year, in the Diocese of Duluth, funds went to Backus Community Center Community Cafe, International Falls; Bridges of Hope Resource Connection Services, Brainerd; Falls Hunger Coalition, International Falls; Fuel Up Forestview, Baxter; Grace House of Itasca County, Grand Rapids; Second Harvest Kids Packs to Go Backpack Program, Grand Rapids; Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative, Duluth; Neighbors Helping Neighbors Foodshelf, Nashwauk; Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, Duluth; and Servants of Shelter, International Falls.

But the goal is to go beyond collecting money and spur discussions in churches and around family dinner tables about the meaning of Lent and the daily reality that people living in poverty face.

“We see CRS Rice Bowl as much more than a fund-raising opportunity,” said Rosenhauer. “It is an opportunity for Catholics in America to encounter what Lent means, what poverty means, what resilience means, what hope means.

“We want families to participate together so they can experience the joyous feeling of solidarity that comes from generosity and sacrifice,” she said. “We know from years of experience that CRS Rice Bowl can be life-changing.”

As part of CRS Rice Bowl, speakers from around the world will travel throughout the United States telling their stories of how CRS Rice Bowl-supported programs are changing lives. For Thomas Awiapo, a feeding program in his village in Ghana funded by CRS Rice Bowl brought him as a hungry young orphan to school for food. He stayed for an education, eventually a master’s degree in the United States, returning to Ghana for a career with CRS there. Cassandra Bassainthe, who left Haiti as a young child, will talk about why she returned to her home country to help the poor and vulnerable. Micter Chaola of Malawi and Jacques Kabore of Burkina Faso will share their experiences working in agriculture in their respective countries.

“CRS Rice Bowl does far more than feed people,” Rosenhauer said. “It also helps develop agriculture so that families and communities can support themselves. As we heed the request of Pope Francis and ‘Share the Journey,’ we know that the best way you can help a migrant is to make sure that she doesn’t have to leave home in the first place. That’s what CRS Rice Bowl can help accomplish.”

CRS Rice Bowl materials are designed for families, parishes, educators, universities and dioceses. They are available in print, on the web, and through the mobile app, and in both English and Spanish.

Printed materials can be ordered for groups of 25 or more for free. Call (800) 222-0025 or visit to place an order.

Join the CRS Rice Bowl Facebook group and download the app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.

To learn more about CRS Rice Bowl, visit

— The Northern Cross


EWTN host to speak at men’s conference Feb. 17

The seventh annual Men of Faith Conference for the Diocese of Duluth is set for Feb. 17 at Marshall School in Duluth and will feature Peter Herbeck, co-host of the weekly EWTN television shows “The Choices We Face” and “Crossing the Goal,” in addition to the daily radio show “Fire on the Earth.”

Herbeck, who lives in Michigan, is also vice president and director of missions for Renewal Ministries, an organization that seeks to foster renewal and evangelization in the Catholic Church by helping people know the personal love of God. He is a frequent conference speaker and author who has worked in evangelization in the United States and abroad for more than three decades.

Peter Herbeck
Peter Herbeck

Deacon John Weiske, one of the lead organizers of the annual diocesan men’s conference, said the theme this year is “Men of the Spirit.” Herbeck’s talks will involve spiritual formation.

Deacon Weiske said this year seems to be following trends comparable to recent years.

“We anticipate we’ll be around 350 again” for attendance, he said.

But there are some areas he’d like to see improve. For instance, he said while walk-ons on the day of the conference are welcome, organizers would prefer registrations by Feb. 12, and the conference can’t guarantee food after that.

“Last year we had 50 walk-ons,” he said. “Typically we may have about 30.”

He said he would also like those who have come in the past to reach out and invite other men to join them, especially younger men and fathers and sons.

“One of our goals is try and encourage younger men to participate,” he said. “The majority of the men are 60 and older.”

Ages 16 and up are welcome.

In addition to the talks, the day will include daily Mass with Bishop Paul Sirba and opportunities for confession, with at least 15 priests hearing confessions. As in recent years, one of the presentations will be given twice, allowing those attending to split into two groups, with half hearing the talk and the other half having an opportunity to take a break and go to confession.

The conference begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. Cost after Feb. 5 is $40, $25 for students. Register online at

— By Deacon Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross

Bishop Paul Sirba: Lent is nearly upon us — get ready

Our Lent draws near! In the first days of February we conclude Catholic School’s Week, our priests and deacons attend the annual retreat for clergy Feb. 5-9, and we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Scholastica on Feb. 10. Ash Wednesday is Feb. 14. I wonder what the secular world is going to do about “Valentine’s Day,” but in the liturgical life of the Church, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent take precedence. I hope to see ashes on the heads of all faithful Christians on the 14th and suggest you wait until after “Valentine’s Day” to buy your candy and celebrate with a loved one. There should be some great sales.

Bishop Paul Sirba
Bishop Paul Sirba
Fiat Voluntas Tua

The Holy Father’s Lenten message quotes from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Because of the increase of iniquity, the love of many will grow cold” (24:12). Pope Francis encourages Catholics and people of good will to experience anew this time of grace with joy and in truth. The quotation the Holy Father chose appears in Christ’s preaching about the end of time, on the Mount of Olives, where the Lord’s Passion would begin.

The pope warns us about false prophets and cold hearts. He alludes to an image in Dante’s description of hell, of the devil sitting on a throne of ice in frozen and lifeless isolation. He asks us to examine our consciences: How is it that charity, which should be the fire of God’s love in us, can turn cold within us?

As Catholics have done for millennia, the Church, our Mother and Teacher, provides the “soothing remedy of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting” for our cold hearts.

The Holy Father says that by devoting time to prayer, “we enable our hearts to root out our secret lies and forms of self-deception, and then to find the consolation God offers. He is our Father and he wants us to live life well.”

Almsgiving “sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbor as a brother or sister. What I possess is never mine alone.”

Fasting “weakens our tendency to violence; it disarms us and becomes an important opportunity for growth … it allows us to experience what the destitute and the starving have to endure … it expresses our own spiritual hunger and thirst for life in God.”

I join the Holy Father in asking all the members of our beloved Church to take up our Lenten journey with enthusiasm. Please attend our Men’s Conference on Feb. 17 or our Women’s Conference on Feb. 24. These have proven to be occasions of grace, mutual support, and learning. You are welcome to come to the Rite of Elect on Feb. 18 at the Cathedral. Your prayerful support of the men and women who are preparing to enter the Church at the Easter Vigil in a moving ritual, and your support is most welcome. Your participation in the CRS Rice Bowl greatly benefits our brothers and sisters in their need.

Pope Francis has asked the entire Church community to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the context of Eucharistic Adoration over a 24 hour period from Friday, March 9, to Saturday, March 10. In our diocese, this “24 Hours for the Lord” will be held at St. Benedict Church in Duluth. He asks us to be inspired by the theme from Psalm 130:4, “With you is forgiveness.”

Our Lent prepares us to enter into the Paschal Mystery of Easter with great joy and gladness. We resist our cold hearted temptations and open ourselves to the loving mercy of God.

Bishop Paul Sirba is the ninth bishop of Duluth.

With Capitol 101, MCC invites Catholics to learn about the legislative process

Last year, the Minnesota Catholic Conference held its first Catholics at the Capitol, a massive event that brought thousands of Catholics to St. Paul for formation in faithful citizenship and a chance to speak to legislators directly. That event is expected to return in 2019.

But that doesn’t mean Catholics are out in the cold when it comes to state politics this year. MCC is instead holding what it’s calling Capitol 101.

“Capitol 101 is another way for Catholics to have an experience of education and empowerment in a more intimate setting,” said Rachel Herbeck, outreach and policy coordinator for the conference. “Just like with Catholics at the Capitol, we hope Capitol 101 will offer a forum for education and action made simple and accessible. We want to give Catholics as many opportunities as possible to connect with their legislators and engage in the public arena as faithful citizens.”

It’s on a significantly smaller scale. There are three opportunities — Feb. 26, March 16, and April 17 — and each will have space for 100 people.

Each of those events will cover the same ground, including an overview of the legislative process, of a Catholic’s role in the legislative process, and of the legislative agenda of MCC, with a chance to hear from a legislator and a chance to pray together for legislators and the state. Following that, there will be an opportunity to meet with one’s own representatives.

Herbeck said one of the goals is to cut through the intimidation people might feel at engaging in the political process.

“So many Catholics are interested in getting involved, but many are intimidated by their legislators and the legislative process,” she said. “It often seems complicated and distant. But we want to demystify the legislative process and show Catholics exactly what their role is.

“Once people take that first step of involvement and meet their legislators, that fear melts away and they see how easy it is to begin a relationship with their legislators. Capitol 101 will give you the tools you need to be involved. Never underestimate how much [good] it does to just show up.”

Capitol 101 is free, although a free-will offering will be accepted, and Herbeck said it’s for any Catholic interested in learning where they fit in the legislative process, especially those who weren’t able to get to Catholics at the Capitol last year.

However, because space is so limited, she encouraged those who are interested to “register right away.” Details can be found at

The Minnesota Catholic Conference also continues to support the work of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition’s Day on the Hill, which will take place this year on March 13. JRLC is an interfaith organization that advocates for social justice. For more information on getting involved with that event, visit

— By Deacon Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross

Kyle Eller: Christmas story invites us to our own place in the story

My favorite piece of sacred music that we hear in Mass is the Exultet — that long chant, usually sung by a deacon, that is prayed near the beginning of the Easter Vigil Mass. (Having been ordained a deacon less than 24 hours ago, I am eagerly hoping I will have an opportunity to sing it sometime in the future.)

But I also very much like another piece of sacred music that can be sung in a similar way at the night Mass on Christmas Eve. It’s shorter, it’s also very simple, and it’s very beautiful. It’s called “The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and it’s a proclamation of exactly that.

Kyle Eller
Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

The chant highlights the time of the birth of Jesus in relation to a whole host of other historical events. It begins with events from salvation history, including the creation of the world and of the human race, Noah and the flood, the call of Abraham, the Exodus, King David, and the prophesy of Daniel.

But then it moves into other parts of history, things we might be tempted to call secular history. We are told that these events took place in the 752nd year since the founding of the city of Rome, during the rein of Caesar Octvian Augustus. My favorite is the first one given: it took place in the 194th Olympiad.

At the conclusion of all this, the music rises and changes. At this time, we are told, “the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and when nine months had passed since his conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man: The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.”

As the musical climax suggests, the earthly life of Jesus is not just the climax of this song, it is turning point of all human history.

I have sung this several years running now, and I always look forward to it. I find it a beautiful thing to pray, because it is a solid reminder of just how concrete and fact-based the Christian faith is.

Our faith is based on a person: on the living and true God, who not only created the whole world and time and therefore history but stepped into history in human flesh. He was born in a particular time and place into a particular family. He died on a particular day, and rose three days later. He chose particular people and sent them into the world as his witnesses, in the full sense of the word — as people who knew him, loved him, shared life with him. What we believe has been handed down to us through the generations starting from those witnesses, in Scripture but also in person-to-person contact.

St. Peter says as much in his second letter: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

The Christian faith is not a theory about God or the world. It’s not a tale we created to make sense of things. It’s based on the encounter with a God who has revealed himself, in person.

In our politically correct days, this is a bit of a scandal. Many people, even some Christians, are much more comfortable with the idea that all religions are basically the same and equally true, and that the point of them is that we ought to be nice to each other and learn to accept ourselves more or less as we are. This view has little room for truth claims and little need for ongoing conversion or for a savior. It doesn’t really demand anything.

Some may continue to believe in God, but not in a personal way, but something more vague and pantheistic, something like the Force from Star Wars.

The lingering of this kind of belief seems to be a kind of twilight of faith. It’s what is left when people have stopped really believing but cannot completely let go of it.

So I think it is bracing and wonderful to get that Christmas proclamation, and really the whole Christmas season, as a reminder that our faith is something other than this. The “glad tidings” of Christmas are certainly ones of promise and peace and hope. But they are only so because they involve the truth of a God reaching out to us in this tender and merciful way while we were yet sinners.

The same God who came to us this way will come again, in another way, when he will come to “judge the living and the dead.” Have we heeded him when he came as our savior? Have we received his mercy? Or have we decided we don’t need a savior and gone our own way?

I hope we soak in the Christmas story — a true story — as the season begins on Dec. 25. And I hope we do so knowing that the story is still unfolding, and we have a part to play in it, as disciples of the newborn King.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at

Betsy Kneepkens: Now I know why my parents wanted me home for the holidays

My parents deserve an apology, and unfortunately, it is too late to seek forgiveness from my father. When I was 18, I went off to college. I was an adult, paying my way. I was responsible for one person and one person only, myself. Like most older adolescents, my thoughts were, “When I am 18, I am out of here.” In my college years and a few years after that, I found going home to be a last resort option. After that, life was pretty busy and complicated; I found it difficult to manage the distance.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

My thoughts while in college were that I was the third oldest of 13, leaving 10 at home. Who would even notice if I was there? The household was chaotic and disorganized, and my dad, in those days, was rarely home. He went to work early and did not come back until after bedtime. If he is not there, why should I be? I was grown up and mature, what did I need a family for?

My father, in particular, was upset with me. He was extremely disappointed and therefore distanced himself, rarely even speaking to me. My mother would occasionally say something like, “Your siblings miss you.” For me, it wasn’t like I never came home; I came back every time I didn’t have someplace better to go.

Frankly, I just didn’t get my parents’ problem. They knew that I loved them, I called my family many Sundays when the rates were cheaper. I didn’t get into much trouble, and I was working hard in college. I didn’t think they needed me, and I certainly didn’t need them.

Well, it is more than 30 years since I thought I was all grown up. I haven’t reflected much about that time in my life until some recent conversations with my older children. Christmas and New Year’s is fast approaching, and I am trying to make some plans to have my four oldest children come home. Two are out of college and are working as young professionals, and two go to school in St. Louis.

I am not super greedy. I just want a few days when all of my children are home together. I want to go to Christmas Mass with all six of my children at the same time.

What I have to compete with are affordable flights, college schedules, working adult children that have limited vacation days, travel abroad opportunities, and their perception of the cost-benefit of traveling a distance in unknown winter conditions for what seems to them like a brief visit. There seem to be many good reasons not to come home, and I should be satisfied that they are trying. I can’t help but find myself thinking, “They do want to come home, don’t they?”

What I comprehend now but did not understand when I was a young adult is there is this sort of peace parents experience when all of their children are home under the same roof. No matter the age of the child, I sleep more soundly when all of my children are in their beds fast asleep. It does not matter if there are 10 additional people in our home — as long as six of them are mine, the sense of calm is palpable.

I find myself doing things I never thought I would for my children, like taking days off from work before they arrive so the house is tidy. This exercise is particularly funny, because it wasn’t tidy for them when they were growing up. I plan to make the few meals they like and create fun activities to do so they don’t run off and hang out with friends.

Unfortunately, what they think is fun and what I think is fun may be different. They do end up spending time with their friends, and I know they should. I get so excited when they come home, I catch myself treating them more like guests than family.

I want my children to want to be home. I know that if I make any one of my children feel obligated to come back for the holidays, the experience will create a whole bunch of other problems. And I know those attitudes impact those who want to be there, so pushing them beyond desire is fruitless. I extend a warm invitation, listen to their challenges, do what I can to mitigate as many obstacles for them as I can, and accept their decision, even if that choice aches my heart.

Christmas has been and always will be about the birth of Christ. And my family will continue to do faith directed activities each Christmas season, no matter who might show. Perhaps this Christmas I need to reflect more on the challenges Mary and Joseph encountered on their pilgrimage to Bethlehem, which will help me refocus and better accept my children’s pilgrimage back to Duluth or their inability to come.

I know I owe my mother and late father an apology. I wasn’t mature enough to get the more important concept of this holy season. I sincerely understand what my parents felt now and reckon that some of my kids might not be too far from what I was thinking 30-some years ago.

I know I have work to do, because Christmas ought not to be about me and my feelings. I need to find joy first in foremost in the celebration of Christ’s birth and enjoy the union I will get to experience with whoever can make their journey home.

Merry Christmas to all, with the hope of a safe and blessed New Year!

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.

Liz Hoefferle: Christmas is a good time to meditate on the great gift — Jesus

Christmas is a great time to think about gifts. From television commercials to Black Friday sales, and from newspaper inserts to lists for Santa, it’s not hard to focus on gifts this time of year.

A dictionary definition of gift tells us that it is “a thing given to someone without payment.” Different than something that is sold, exchanged, or earned, a gift is freely given. We buy or make a gift for someone simply because we care about the person and want to make his or her life better. Giving a gift is an act of love.

Liz Hoefferle
Liz Hoefferle
Handing on the Faith

As we approach this holy season of Christmas and prepare to celebrate the greatest gift of all – the gift of Jesus – perhaps, we can take some prayerful time to reflect upon the significance of this gift and how we can better respond to this gift, which is offered to us each day.

The gift

Through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God has given himself to us in an entirely new and unique way. Our Christmas celebration is about the gift of God’s own life given to us. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

Jesus instructs us about this new life through his teachings. “I am the way and the truth and life” (John 14:6).

He gives us a glimpse into this new life through his healings. A woman is cured of her hemorrhage. Sight is restored to the blind. Lepers and demoniacs are cured.

He makes it possible for us to share in this new life through his act of self-sacrificing love on the cross. “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live” (John 11:25).

Just as Jesus offered this gift to the woman at the well, he also offers it to each of us. “If you knew the gift of God … you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:25).

Accepting the gift

Jesus invites every person to receive this gift, but, as with any gift, his invitation can be accepted or rejected. Acceptance of his offer involves a response of faith and a conversion of heart, leading one to become his disciple.

Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, not only shows us who God is but also shows us the truth about who we are. Made in God’s image and likeness but affected by sin, we are offered Jesus’ gift of grace to be restored to the fullness of who we were created to be.

By saying “yes” to this offer of new life and making the decision to follow Jesus, one becomes a Christian disciple. The disciple of Christ is one who “accept[s] God’s saving grace, liberating truth, and sustaining love for our lives and for all of creation” (“Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us,” 45).

The acceptance of this gift changes the way we live. We learn to live according to God’s will, and we begin to love in a way that far exceeds our own human capabilities. We begin to “live in love, as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:2).

Intentional discipleship

Our first acceptance of this life of grace occurs at our baptism. For those of us baptized as infants, the faith of our parents and godparents allowed us to receive this gift of new life, setting us on our journey as Christian disciples.

However, this is a not a gift that is just received once and is over and done with. It is a gift that needs to be continually accepted, every day of our lives. Being an intentional disciple means purposefully accepting and cooperating with the grace offered to us by God each day. This is a gift that restores us from sin, strengthens us in times of temptations, and helps us to love as God loves.

It leads us to desire the things of God and to extend God’s love to our neighbor, building his kingdom here on earth. Accepting God’s gift of grace leads us to ongoing conversion, through which we become more conformed to Jesus Christ. As a result, we begin to live more for God and less for ourselves.

As we grow in Christian discipleship, we see God’s ways more clearly and desire that his will truly be done. We learn more deeply how everything that the church offers – her prayer life, her celebration of the sacraments, her teachings – helps us receive and respond to the gift of new life offered by Jesus Christ.

We also begin to recognize that a disciple of Jesus not only shares in the joy of the new life he offers but also must be willing to unite with him in sacrifice. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

The response of Christian discipleship indicates the acceptance of the gift that God has given to us at the first Christmas and that he continues to offer to each one of us today. As we prepare our gifts for Christmas – the presents we purchase, the meals we prepare, the treats we bake – let us also prepare our hearts to accept the greatest gift that God wishes to give us, the gift of his very life.

Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.