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Q: Holiday travel. Our adult children who live far away plan to visit at Christmas. Due to ongoing health concerns during this time, we feel fortunate to have a property they can stay in for two weeks before coming to our home to celebrate. That said, how can we explain that they really must avoid seeing others during that time? We are practicing Catholics, and they have continued to attend Mass and go to Adoration during this time. My husband and I have health concerns and have remained home (no socializing, no shopping in stores, watching Mass online only, etc.). Sadly, our daughter believes we have a lack of faith because we are staying in. I believe we are being cautious and prudent, as well as respecting the health of others by NOT being out when we don’t NEED to be. Help, please. How can we resolve this respectfully when we seem to not see eye-to-eye on this? We love and miss our children very much and want to be around to see grandchildren someday, God willing. This feels like a real sacrifice right now, but one we are willing to make. Thanks for any advice.
A: Dear Concerned Parents, I can sense the frustration in your question. This is such a difficult time for families. We are accustomed to thinking “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” with all the joy of being together with the ones we love. And yet this pandemic persists in taking some of our most cherished joys from us. That being said, I admire your expressed commitment to something so central to Catholic social teaching: the common good. This pandemic has pushed us to put our faith in action and think beyond ourselves to the common good. Often, we think that means doing something (volunteering, helping the poor and marginalized, etc.). In this instance it often means refraining from doing something, (not gathering in groups, not traveling, staying healthy so as not to overwhelm the healthcare system, etc.). You and your husband’s decision to stay home and limit contact with others is a sacrifice. It’s a sacrifice for the common good. And it stems from another central Catholic principle, that we must always follow our conscience.
Here’s where things become difficult, because your adult children are likely trying to follow their consciences too. They too are trying to navigate this difficult terrain. So, respectful dialogue is the way forward and the outcome is unknown. Although it is difficult, in your conversations try to keep the picture larger than yourselves and your immediate family. Think also of overworked healthcare workers, first responders, and hospital staff who are increasingly affected by people contracting this deadly virus. Think of people who may not receive care or receive less care because hospitals are overwhelmed. Think of those less fortunate who need help. As difficult as it is in the moment, try to think of the whole.
As to your daughter, I’m glad she has found strength in her faith in this difficult time. This pandemic can be frightening and it’s wonderful to hear of her trust in God through this difficulty. Of course, we know that people of great faith still die from diseases like cancer or suffer injustices through no fault of their own. God does not abandon them in their suffering, but rather walks with them wherever the journey leads. I’ve attended many funerals of people who had great faith and hope. Faith is not the only gift God gives us. God also gives us the gift of reason. And that too must be attended to, including the wisdom of the healthcare and scientific community and entities like the CDC.
There’s an old Jesuit adage that I’ve always found compelling, “Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you.” I take this to mean we rely completely upon God and we do everything in our power. Despite the challenges, there’s still so much to be thankful for! I pray you all have a joyous Christmas whether together in person or via creative technology. And let’s take heart in the wonder that Jesus came to share in all our joys and our sorrows. The gift of Jesus’s intimate and abiding presence in each of our lives is a source of strength and gratitude that cannot be diminished by any external circumstance.
—John Christman, S.S.S.
Q: Preferred practice. My in-laws like to go to Mass on Christmas Eve so they can spend the entire following day at home. I’d prefer to go on Christmas morning, but if I did that I’d miss their Christmas morning festivities, which would cause upset. I am also skeptical that Mass on Christmas Eve fulfills the Christmas Day Mass obligation. Is there a good, convincing reason to attend Mass on Christmas versus Christmas Eve?
A: Dear Skeptical Son-in-law, It would be convenient if doctrine supported your preferred holiday practice instead of your in-laws’, but alas, Canon law tells us that attending Mass the evening preceding a feast day satisfies the Holy Day obligation. It looks like you’ll have to do some introspection instead. I would encourage you to consider if it matters so much for your spiritual and emotional health to attend Christmas Day Mass that it’s worth missing out on your partner and their family’s celebration—and likely hurting them in the process. I would also encourage you to consider if there is a way to compromise on this matter. Do you and your partner trade off on whose family you spend the Christmas with, like many couples do? If so, could you be satisfied attending Christmas morning Mass every other year when you celebrate with your family (regardless of their practice) so that you can fully partake in your in-laws’ traditions when you’re with them? As you mull over these questions, it’s worth remembering that Jesus came to bring peace on earth and that this may be your opportunity to live out the Christmas message in a practical and loving way. Mother Teresa often said that world peace begins within the family; and I’ll add that family includes in-laws, too.
Q: A COVID-19 Christmas. My sister really wants to host a Christmas gathering this year for my extended family. She thinks we can safely gather inside while wearing masks, and then eat in separate areas. Even though there are some precautions, this makes me nervous, and I’m not sure I want to attend. How can I tell her without hurting her feelings?
A: Dear Stressed-out Sister, It dawned on me around mid-April that I’m not going to make it out of this pandemic without having hurt someone’s feelings. My realization came when I turned down an out-of-town friend’s request to visit, and it sounds like you are on the way to a similar moment of recognition. The reality in your situation is that your sense of safety and your sister’s holiday wishes are at odds with one another. While feelings may inevitably be hurt as you discuss Christmas plans, the potential for peaceful and accepting dialogue isn’t out of the question, and you’ll facilitate this sort of conversation by entering it with gentleness and clarity. I would recommend starting by getting clear with yourself about your wants and needs for the month ahead. What do you feel comfortable with in terms of seeing family and friends, and why? Would you be open to a cozily-wrapped-in-blankets outdoor visit, or would you prefer to sit out of all family festivities entirely? Are you concerned about your health or the health of a household member, or do you perhaps feel obligated to uphold CDC recommendations for the sake of the common good? Is anything else on the line? There are no right or wrong answers here, and the point of the exercise is to prepare you to approach the conversation with your sister from a grounded place, versus one of defensiveness, timidity, or judgment. You can’t control how your sister reacts, but you can control how you approach the conversation and I suspect that entering it with loving integrity will leave you feeling satisfied, no matter the outcome.
Q: Interfaith holidays. I’m a newlywed in an interfaith marriage (my husband is Jewish), and I want to incorporate both faiths into our holiday traditions. How can we do this where the celebrations don’t feel so separate?
A: Dear Better Together, Your thoughtful question made me think of one of my favorite tools for making sense of a complex world: the Venn diagram. If you don’t remember—or have chosen to block out—your 7th grade math class, a Venn diagram consists of two overlapping circles and is used to visually represent the similarities and differences between two things. Perhaps you and your husband could take a walk down memory lane and create a Venn diagram depicting your individual family and religious traditions and identifying areas of overlap. Maybe you both have warm memories of holiday baking and can designate a baking extravaganza—complete with dreidel and angel cookie-cutters—as one of your new shared traditions. Or maybe you both recall learning to strike a match while lighting the menorah and Advent wreaths, and can correspondingly create a candle-themed decor scheme for the month of December. The beauty of a Venn diagram is that it creates space for noticing similarities and celebrating differences, which at its heart is the beauty of interfaith dialogue as well. Cultivating shared holiday traditions, while also celebrating what is unique about both of your religions, will weave a rich family culture that you’ll treasure for years to come.