ALLOUEZ — Silent night, holy night.
Tradition tells us that Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem at midnight. For centuries, Catholics have observed Christ’s birth by celebrating midnight Mass. Two other Masses, at dawn and during the day, are also celebrated on Christmas Day.
In recent years, however, the midnight Mass has given way to late night Masses, beginning as early as 6 p.m. and as late as 11 p.m.
According to Michael Poradek, director of Divine Worship for the Diocese of Green Bay, the reason for this change was to accommodate the schedules of families.
“Over the past 50 years, we’ve of course seen a decline in the midnight Masses in favor of earlier times that would be more convenient for attendance and participation,” he told The Compass. “However, there’s a certain sense of nostalgia and tradition for many families who grew up attending the midnight Masses as the highlight of Christmas.”
That nostalgia may be one reason a handful of churches in the Diocese of Green Bay are offering midnight Masses this year.
According to the Christmas Mass schedule published Dec. 7 in The Compass, 12 churches will celebrate a Christmas Mass at midnight.
“It does make sense that this tradition has resurfaced or continued in our parishes,” said Poradek. “The carols, decorations, the familiar Gospel narrative, bells, the parish Nativity scene, are all images and memories that we come to know and love each year. Yet gathering for Mass at midnight, during the quiet of the night, adds another layer to the celebration.”
Fr. Joel Sember, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Stiles, said celebrating Christmas Mass at midnight actually led to an increase in Mass attendance.
“We used to have a 10 p.m. Mass that slipped to 8 and 7 p.m., with ever-decreasing attendance,” he told The Compass. “I finally canceled the Mass, only to get phone calls asking if we were having a midnight Mass.
“I’ll try anything once, so I said, ‘Fine, we’ll do midnight Mass at midnight, just to see what happens,’” said Fr. Sember. “St. Patrick, being a small country church, perfectly fit the ambiance. It has been a well-attended Mass time. It’s much more peaceful and prayerful than the zoo that is Christmas Eve. Families of all ages come and the little ones bring blankets and snuggle up by Mom and Dad. Certainly people love this Mass and look forward to it every single year.”
Among the 12 churches offering midnight Mass is the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. According to Corrie Campbell, communications director and event coordinator at the shrine, the first midnight Mass took place in 2016.
“I mentioned (to Father of Mercy John Broussard, rector) that I thought, as a national shrine and the only Marian apparition site in America, it would be great to have a traditional midnight Mass,” she said.
Campbell wasn’t sure if the suggestion would be practical “because of our remote, rural location. But Fr. John embraced the idea.”
Campbell said she arrived early on Christmas Eve to pray, then waited for people to arrive.
“I saw this steady stream of headlights coming into the shrine lot and I remember sitting there and thinking how beautiful this stream of light in the darkness was,” she said. “All of these faithful people were coming to celebrate the Lord’s birth at this site where his Mother appeared. And I started to cry tears of joy.”
Offering midnight Mass “is something that, as Catholics and Christians, we all long for — to be gathered together with our loved ones to share in the joy of birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ,” said Campbell.
Fr. John Girotti celebrates midnight Mass for the Carmelite sisters and guests at the Monastery of the Holy Name of Jesus in Denmark.
“The nuns celebrate the traditional three Christmas Masses of midnight, dawn and day,” he said. “We usually receive about 25 people for the midnight Mass. Like all the Masses at the monastery, it is chanted both in English and Latin. People enjoy coming to the monastery because of its transcendent atmosphere which lends itself to prayer.”
At St. Patrick Church in Stiles, Fr. Sember said the country church “glows with Christmas candles and the choir sounds heavenly.”
“It’s as warm as a stable in church by the time the congregation leaves to bring light to the darkness and joy to the world,” he said.