By Father Bob McConaghy
I arrived in the Philippines in September of 1999. My bishop had given me permission to minister for five years, and I looked forward to being here.
But when I arrived, I realized very acutely that this would be my first Christmas away from home. I noticed that Christmas music was already playing in the malls, and so I tried to avoid listening to it. I knew the season was going to be kind of lonely for me, so I avoided listening to songs and hymns like “Silent Night.”
From September to November, however, I adjusted. I lived in an apartment across the street from Greenbelt Chapel and I got involved with a prayer community called Emmanuel.
The community invited me to celebrate Mass at a place called Masigla, a home for street children. There were 33 girls there between the ages of twelve and eighteen. I accepted the invitation even though I was uncomfortable because I didn’t know the local language. I wondered whether these children would be afraid of me, understand me, or react negatively to me.
But I was surprised.
The Mass at Masigla
When we got to Masigla on that first Saturday of Advent for the Mass and Christmas party, they welcomed me and made me feel very much at home. They took my hand and had big smiles on their faces. I even heard the confessions of four or five of them. I could understand them and their English, and they could understand me.
For the Mass, they had a beautiful setup in a huge yard. When you have a Mass and a Christmas party for teenagers, you normally want to get through the Mass quickly so they can start the party immediately. But that wasn’t the case here.
The girls had everything organized. They had a choir. They had two girls to do the readings. They had three or four to bring up the gifts at the Offertory. And during that Mass, they paid close attention and were overtly prayerful. That impressed me.
After the Closing Prayer, and just before the Final Blessing, I said, “Girls, because Christmas for me was always the possibility of snow, midnight Mass, and being with my family for a few days, I knew it was going to be a different case this year. So you and I have something in common. We’re not going to be with our families. But how about this? On Christmas Day, I will come back here. We’ll have another party, we’ll have Christmas Mass, and we’ll spend the day together. I want to get to know each of you a little bit better.”
Oh, they were so happy that they applauded!
At the back of my mind, I said, I’m going to make this a really good Christmas for them.
So I asked my friends back in America to send me money and, with the help of the women members of Masigla, shopped for dresses, shoes, or whatever gift the girls wanted. They were wrapped and delivered to my apartment on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
That was my loneliest Christmas Eve ever. I went out but there was nobody on the streets. Everything was closed, except for 24/7 convenience stores. I called my family, wished them all a Merry Christmas, and for the first time since I was eight years old, I went to bed before midnight.
The next morning, it was cool outside and the sky was Blessed Mother blue. The members of the prayer group picked me up, loaded all the presents into the back of the van, and headed to Masigla.
As soon as I got out of the van, all the girls came up, dressed in their finest, and wished me a Merry Christmas. I felt very much at home.
We then unloaded all the gifts. I didn’t notice until after we had all the presents on the table that there was another table filled with presents.
I said to Mrs. Jose, who is the head at Masigla, “Oh, wow! This is terrific! Someone had the same idea as I had. This is going to be a wonderful Christmas for the girls.”
Mrs. Jose said to me, “Oh, you mean those gifts? Those are yours.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “When you were here that Saturday and you said to the girls that you wanted to spend Christmas Day with them, they were surprised by that. They said you could spend Christmas anywhere but you want to be with us.”
Each of them had asked Mrs. Jose for their December allowance and went Christmas shopping for me.
That touched me at a level that I can’t put into words. It was difficult to celebrate Mass that day and look at those girls without breaking down in tears.
When I got to the homily, I said to the girls, “You know, when Jesus first came to Earth, the people were expecting him. But they expected their Messiah, their saviour, to be born in the palace, surrounded by servants at a great distance from his people, a strong military leader. But little did they know that Jesus would be born in the most unexpected place—a manger; at the most unusual time—the census; and in the oddest of circumstances—having to travel and walk for three days just to get to Bethlehem, where there was no room in the inn.
I said, “The great tragedy of Christmas ever since is that people look for the deepest meaning of Christmas in the most expected places, at the usual times, and in the most comfortable of circumstances. But our God is a God of surprises, a God of the unexpected. And if He were to come back to earth today, I think one of the first places He would want to go is to be with you.”
At the end of the Mass, they all got up and sang “Silent Night.” I’ve heard it sung on video by Pavarotti. I’ve heard it sung by cathedral choirs, and I’ve heard it sung beautifully by celebrities. But never have I heard “Silent Night” sung with more meaning than on that beautiful day.
Quite by surprise on that Christmas of 1999, I became the beggar, and those who fed me were those girls. They fed me with their piety, kindness, generosity, and with their eyes so filled with hope.
That Christmas is one that I will never forget because I found the deepest meaning of Christmas in the most unexpected place, at the most unusual time, and in the oddest of circumstances.
May God Surprise You
My prayer for you this Christmas is that God will surprise you with an unexpected gift. During Advent, try to take some quiet time and empty your mind of all your fears. Place yourself and your heart in the presence of Jesus, either in your home or in an adoration chapel, and say, “Surprise me, Lord.”
Let God surprise you with unexpected gifts and may you find the deepest meaning of why He came to Earth.
Father McConaghy is a priest of the Diocese of Allentown who completed his five-year ministry in the Philippines and returned to Allentown. After retirement, he returned to the Philippines to live.