Peace Light from Bethlehem arrives in Neenah

Project begun in Austria brought to diocese by Global Outreach

NEENAH — For a second year, St. Gabriel the Archangel parishioners and Global Outreach are joining Christians and Boy Scouts worldwide in spreading peace and light this Christmas season. The Peace Light from Bethlehem was welcomed at the parish on Dec. 15 with a prayer service.

The light, a flame lit more than 1,000 years ago and maintained with oil lamps burning continuously, is shared as a symbol to promote peace, harmony and unity around the world. The Peace Light campaign was originally organized in 1986 as part of a charitable relief mission, “Light into Darkness,” started by the Austrian Broadcasting Company for children and people in need, according to the group’s website. In 1989, the Boy Scouts and other groups spread it throughout Europe and, eventually, into the United States.

Cub Scout Chester Shaffer, 11, of Pack 3074 places a lantern containing a flame from the Peace Light from Bethlehem on a table in the Chapel of St. Gabriel the Archangel Church in Neenah Dec. 15. Fr. Larry Seidl, right, pastor of St. Gabriel Parish, led the prayer service. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

Each year, a child from Austria travels to Bethlehem and ignites a lamp with the flame from the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. The light is then flown to Austria and distributed at a Service of Dedication to delegations from across Europe. Those delegates take the light back to their own countries, along with a message of peace, for use at ecumenical services. Canadian Scouts first brought it to the United States in 2001 at Ground Zero in New York City.

The Peace Light came to St. Gabriel for the first time in 2017 through the effort of Global Outreach student Daniel Svoboda, an exchange student from the Czech Republic. Fr. Larry Seidl, pastor of St. Gabriel Parish, said Svoboda approached him and asked if he could bring this piece of his Christmas tradition to the Fox Valley.

“Up to that point, I knew nothing about it,” Fr. Seidl said, but he was happy to help. He serves as spiritual director for Global Outreach and supports the group’s mission of “building a civilization of love in Central/Eastern Europe as well as the United States.”

“Not only is Global Outreach about service, but also about inspiring others to do the same,” he said. Bringing the Peace Light to Neenah “is a great example of taking this seriously.”

During the service welcoming the light, Fr. Seidl said, “We talk about servant leadership and it is wonderful to serve others. But, service is only one part of servant leadership. The leadership part is inspiring others to do the same. … The inspiration has been shared here and you will continue to spread the peace message. The model of servant leadership is Jesus himself. He came not to be served, but to serve. We are to do the same.”

With this effort, he told the gathering, “We are part of changing the world.”

Chester Shaffer, 11, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Menasha, said he was honored to be part of the ceremony when he carried the lit lantern into the chapel after it arrived from Wausau. “It was exciting to be part of this whole thing,” he said. The Peace Light is expected to reach 32 states during the Christmas season.

“We all contribute to leaving the world a little better than we found it,” said Jeremy Searl, a Scout leader in Neenah. Scout leaders from the Fox Valley and the Lakeshore received candles lit from the Peace Light to take back to their local communities. Others were invited to take lit candles to place in their homes or share with friends and family.

Global Outreach has been a big part of the Peace Light efforts. The student-exchange program began at St. Mary Central High School in Menasha and later moved to Neenah. Global Outreach was a way to bring exchange students to the school. Young Catholics from the church in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe spend their junior year of high school in one of 16 Catholic high schools in the Midwest. Schools in Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota participate, including St. Mary Central in Neenah, Lourdes Academy in Oshkosh, Xavier High School in Appleton, Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay and Roncalli in Manitowoc.

Steve Becker, a Global Outreach board member and host parent, and his wife, Sue, are hosting their fifth exchange student and will take two students next year. They urge others to consider being host families.

The exchange students “become sons and daughters to you,” said Becker. “Last summer, we were able to visit two of our ‘daughters’ in Poland. One thing you learn as hosts is that teenagers are teenagers worldwide. These students love their parents and their families.”

For more information, go to https://globaloutreachprogram.com. To learn more about the Peace Light, go to www.peacelight.org.