Most of the leaves were still on the trees on Saturday, October 22, when nearly 200 people assembled in the historic chapel and shrine at Our Lady Help of Christians in Cheektowaga to celebrate a Christmas Mass that will be shown across the nation on Christmas week.
"It was not hard to pretend," said Sarah Hodges, a 31-year-old graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo, who served as a Eucharistic minister at the Mass. "They decorated the church so beautifully. It absolutely looked like Christmas inside the chapel. Everybody was wearing the red and green and getting dressed up. You walked in and it felt like Christmas."
The Interfaith Broadcasting Commission chose the Diocese of Buffalo to pre-record the Mass that will be shown by approximately 90 percent of the ABC affiliates across the country, reaching about 10 million people. Catholic Health System signed on as the sponsor to help defray some production costs. "This is the epitome of Daybreak's ministry," said Claire Rung, executive producer of Daybreak TV Productions, the production team for the Diocese of Buffalo. "We feel the tremendous responsibility of technically capturing the essence and spiritual beauty of the Mass and to provide video quality worthy of national broadcast for millions to see. It is our Mount Everest to climb, the height of our evangelization efforts."
Father Ryszard Biernat, secretary to Bishop Richard J. Malone, and his office chose the prayers, readings and choreographed the movements of altar servers, Eucharistic ministers, deacons and the congregation. Michael Hooker, vocal music director at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute in Kenmore, led the choir, "Gloria Deo Chorus." Designer Dianne Sipple and assistant Pauline Scinta decorated the chapel. Parishioners from Our Lady Help of Christians Church, maintenance staff and the parish pastor, Father Richard Jesionowski, offered assistance wherever needed.
"I have a confession to make," said Bishop Malone at the beginning of his homily. "Every year, even before Advent, I search the radio until I find an FM station that plays Christmas music and nothing but 24-7. I love it." Bishop Malone admitted he does get frustrated by the fact that so much of the music played on the radio during the Christmas season seems less about the celebration of Our Savior's birth, and more about jingle bells and mistletoe.
Bishop Malone singled out one of his mother's favorite Christmas carols, the 1962 rendition of "Do You Hear What I Hear?", for the way it reflects on the profound meaning of what is celebrated on Christmas. "Do you know that the angel's words to the shepherd are God's word to us? 'Do not be afraid, and listen to what I say. Behold I proclaim to you great news of joy for today, in the City of David, a Savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. Glory to God in the highest and on Earth, peace to those on whom his favor rests. God's own peace to you and to all of those you love. Healing and reconciliation to our nation and our world,'" concluded Bishop Malone. "To any of you who need to hear this invitation, please remember: in God's merciful embrace, Catholics can always come home. Merry Christmas, all."
Tammy Milillo used her wheelchair to bring a statue of the baby Jesus for Bishop Malone to place in the manger during the opening procession. "The day was fantastic," said Milillo. "They had younger and older people in the congregation, and it showed a good face to all the different facets in the Catholic community. For those that are Catholic, I think it will bring hope that there are young people carrying on the traditions in faith, and for those who aren't Catholic, it will give them a second to pause and say, 'Maybe we haven't heard the whole story.'"
"It was an amazing experience, and I'm glad I got to be part of it," said Hodges, who works at a nursing home and helps with the rosary group there. "I will definitely be telling all of my residents what channel to watch and at what time. They will all have Post-it notes in their rooms."
Daybreak TV has posted a schedule of when each ABC network affiliate is airing the Mass on Christmas week. WKBW-TV, in Buffalo, will air the Mass at 11:35 p.m. on Christmas Eve and again at 9 a.m. on Christmas Day.
"I hope that through the recording and distribution of this Mass, people who may not otherwise participate in Christmas Mass, will experience a new meaning of Christmas," said Rung. "I hope those who are suffering from loss, loneliness or personal turmoil will experience peace at least for a little while on Christmas Day."