Cardinal O'Connell preaches on 'The True Spirit of Christmas'

On Dec. 12, 1926, Cardinal William H. O'Connell delivered a sermon on the "True Spirit of Christmas" to the St. Vincent de Paul Society at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The sermon stressed the importance of charitable giving at Christmastime, a message that is as resonant today as it was nearly 100 years ago.

In the beginning of his sermon, Cardinal O'Connell expressed his gratitude to the members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. "I always make a supreme effort to come to your meetings," he said, "because it is the only way I have to assure you how dear is the work of this Association to the head of the Diocese."

The work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society began in Boston in 1838, when it came to the attention of a group of cathedral parishioners that the financial situation of the Sisters of Charity in the diocese was precarious. The parishioners organized a donation drive to meet the sisters' immediate needs, and afterward resolved to form a permanent organization to support their work. The Constitution of the St. Vincent de Paul Society was adopted in early 1839 by an inaugural group of 277 members, making Boston's conference of the society one of the oldest in the U.S.

Over time, the mission of the Cathedral St. Vincent de Paul Society expanded to include serving the poor and vulnerable throughout the city of Boston. Women's and Men's chapters of the society held fundraisers, food pantries, charity concerts, and clothing drives geared toward helping those in need. By 1926, Cardinal O'Connell was well acquainted with the work of the society, having observed its work from his earliest days as a parish priest in the Boston area. He believed that its members were a witness to the spirit of Christmas: "To men like you who are engaged all the year round in the ministration of charity, life is one perpetual Christmas. That is to say, it is constantly one revelation of love and faith.

A "spirit of giving," the cardinal went on to say, was essential to the Christmas season. "He gave us himself. Well, the first thing to do is to give ourselves back to him."

Cardinal O'Connell had practical advice for those seeking to adopt this self-giving mindset. In addition to attending Christmas Mass and receiving the Eucharist, he exhorted Catholics to wake Christmas morning and "go on your knees somewhere and if you can say, 'Dear Little Infant Jesus, You gave all that you had to me, now I give all I have to thee.'"

If one's first gift was to Jesus, the cardinal reasoned, "The second ought to be to the children and the third to the poor. Give the children of your own family ... some little thing; some pretty little toy, some inexpensive, but artistic little thing which a child will understand and enjoy. Give them a little medal of our Blessed Lady, a little medal of the Sacred Heart, a little picture of the infant Jesus; something simple; inexpensive. Let us be children with the children."

The poor, the elderly, the sick, and the vulnerable were not to be forgotten at Christmastime. "To the poor, give money or goods that they can use." To make the experience more personal and heartfelt, he instructed, "go to the trouble of buying them yourself." Sharing one's time was equally as important as sharing one's treasure. Practicing what he preached, the cardinal himself always spent Christmas day visiting diocesan nursing homes, orphanages, and hospitals.

Near the end of his sermon, Cardinal O'Connell added an additional group of people to be approached with a spirit of giving -- one's friends. "Your intimate friends understand perfectly well any little greeting from you ... they only want to be remembered. They want to know you are thinking of them."

In the end, Cardinal O'Connell stressed, the spirit in which a gift is given is more important than the gift itself or its cost. "Give whatever you give in the same spirit of love that our Divine Lord showed when he gave himself to us on the first Christmas."