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For Ruskin priest, ‘Happy Christmas’ comes from his heart

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Father John McEvoy of St. Anne Catholic Church in Ruskin is celebrating his second Christmas in the new sanctuary.
MITCH TRAPHAGEN PHOTOS

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

Last Sunday, John McEvoy spoke about reflecting on the true meaning of Christmas. In doing so, he recognized what he described as the “hustle and bustle” of the season. He said that God is with us and he spoke of hope and faith, both are the tools of his trade. McEvoy is known to many around South Hillsborough as Father John and is the pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church in Ruskin.

The lines are long at the post offices and in the stores. Christmas is upon us, along with all that it brings:  buying gifts and sending cards, preparing for guests visiting from the frosty north, baking and running and scrambling until the day arrives and then passes for another year.

What does Christmas mean to a priest?  Is he among the frantic crowds in the mall shopping for gifts?  Is it stressful or joyful?  A priest is someone who made a conscious decision to serve God and his congregation, but he is still just a man. For those of any faith, Father McEvoy’s thoughts on Christmas have weight because he doesn’t merely profess his faith, he has acted upon it in dedicating his life to it.

With a delightful Irish lilt in his voice and a genuine smile that rarely seems to fade, Father McEvoy spoke of what is one of the most important days in Christianity, and what it means to him.

“Christmas means God becoming man,” Father McEvoy said. “This is a time for us to make an extra effort because God is with us. God became a human person and he taught us how to live. He went through experiences in a human life — in feelings and sufferings. Feelings and sufferings don’t change over the generations. He died a horrible death on the cross and then he rose again. Christmas is the beginning of life for us on our journey to God.”

While much has been made over the years of the commercialization of Christmas, Father McEvoy has a different take on it.

“People have to work to make a living,” he said. “People buy gifts for the poor, people buy for others.”

As an example, McEvoy spoke of traveling behind the Iron Curtain at Christmas time in 1991.

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McEvoy’s smile never seems to completely fade away. Despite the responsibility of delivering one of his faith’s most important messages, Christmas is not stressful for him, it is happy.

“I was traveling from East Germany to Poland,” he said. “There was nothing of Christmas except for one Christmas tree [in East Germany]. We hit the border with Poland and we knew it was Christmas. Every shop had decorations and nativity scenes. In East Germany, it was totally dark. By Poland, a light was shining in the darkness. This was just before the Iron Curtain broke down. It was amazing.”

From that example, it is easy to see that the commercialization of Christmas is a part of the celebration of Christmas. Polish shops selling gifts decorated in light as opposed to the darkness he saw and felt in East Germany.

He is less able to grapple with the trend towards wishing “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas.”  A recent USA Today poll suggested that 45 percent of those responding said Christmas was a time to be with family and friends. Only 37 percent responded that Christmas was a time for God or Jesus.

“Christmas IS a time with family and friends,” Father McEvoy said in response. “The media seems to be taking Christ out of Christmas; it is not the family and friends taking it out. Today all you hear is Happy Holidays. God became man and this is celebrated all over the world. It’s not Happy Holidays, it’s Happy Christmas.”

For many people, the hustle and bustle of Christmas is a stressful time. As a priest, it would seem that delivering one of the most important messages of his faith would create a significant amount of stress, but that is not the case for Father McEvoy.

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Betty Lequia and Delphine Green decorate the alter for Christmas at St. Anne Catholic Church at 106 11th Avenue N.E. in Ruskin. The new sanctuary seats 1,375 people, a nearly three-fold increase from 440 people in the old sanctuary.
“It is not a stressful time for me, it is a very happy time,” he said. “The people at St. Anne, they respond. They help the poor.”

This year, his congregation proved that more than ever. In all, more than 600 children received gifts through the church’s Giving Tree project, up from 300 children last year.

“I open the door and people bring in gifts and toys and everything else,” he said.

This will be Father McEvoy’s second Christmas in the new sanctuary on U.S. Highway 41 in Ruskin. The old sanctuary seated 440 people, the new seats 1,375 people. The sanctuary is awe-inspiring in beauty and scope but the simple nativity scene in front is what seems to captivate him. He spoke of being drawn to a nativity scene as a child while growing up in Ireland. To McEvoy it is a symbol of Christmas itself.

“In the baby Jesus, everyone can relate to him. They can see his life and his experience. A child is very vulnerable in his early years and everyone falls in love with a newborn baby.”

In his Christmas letter to his congregation McEvoy elaborated further.

“We come to adore the Child Jesus not just with expensive gifts but the gift of ourselves in all our weaknesses,” McEvoy wrote. “Children understand this more than we adults do in their innocence and they pray from the heart. It is important to bring children to visit the manger during Christmas to let them pray. They have a great love for other children. Like the shepherds, they leave with joy and the peace of Christmas.”

“Happy Christmas!” McEvoy said with his hand extended. He didn’t ask if I was Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, or agnostic. He was simply offering a wish for the peace, joy and the gift that he knows Christmas to be. It was a wish from the heart.

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