Little rest for priests during 24-hour Christmas sprint

Christmas is a busy time for most pastors. But for Catholic priests, the pace is especially rapid and demanding.

Starting Christmas Eve, the Rev. Tuan Nguyen will celebrate Mass six times in 24 hours at four parishes in Tacoma and Olympia.

With priests in short supply, Catholic clergy are stretched thin at Christmas.

“That’s a big, big night and day,” Nguyen said. “The whole family comes to church.”

For Nguyen, 49, the experience is tiring but rewarding. “It’s a wonderful, joyful celebration.”

Across town, the Rev. Michael McDermott, 74, will also have a short night’s sleep. He will give his Christmas message six times in 18 hours at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church.

Nguyen’s Christmas sprint will start at St. Ann Catholic Church in Tacoma’s South End, where he will preside at two Masses.

He’ll speak in English for the first at 5 p.m. and in Vietnamese for the second at about 7:30 p.m.

That second Mass will be preceded by a half-hour Christmas program in Vietnamese with almost 100 children and adults acting out the story of Christ’s birth.

At a dress rehearsal Sunday night, girls dressed in white as angels and boys in shepherd costumes finished two months of preparation.

Parish member Khoa Dao, 39, held his sleeping 4-year-old son and shepherd, as his 9-year-old daughter rehearsed with the angels.

In addition to celebrating Jesus’ birth, the program and Masses are important ways to pass on Vietnamese culture to the next generation, Dao said.

Dao compared Nguyen’s schedule to a parishioner working overtime on the weekend.

“He’s very caring for his parishioners,” Dao said. “He wants to make sure everybody celebrates Christmas Mass.”

After the events in Tacoma, Nguyen will drive to St. Michael Catholic Church in Olympia to celebrate midnight Mass for members of the Vietnamese community there. They’re holding the service at midnight to fit in with Nguyen’s schedule. He’s filling in because the community’s previous pastor was transferred to Tukwila.

Then, after returning to Tacoma and catching a few hours sleep at the St. Ann rectory, Nguyen will lead three more Masses on Christmas Day: at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.

He’ll deliver the Christmas Day homily at Sacred Heart, St. John of the Woods and St. Ann – the three Tacoma parishes for which Nguyen has been regional pastor for seven years.

Then, at about 5 p.m., Nguyen will be done.

He’ll take the wheel of his 2004 Toyota Camry and drive to his brother’s home in Bellevue, where he’ll sleep, relax and enjoy what’s left of Christmas Day.

Nguyen acknowledged he gets nervous in advance of the big night and day. He prepares by spending time alone, writing his homily and reading the Scriptures.

That message focusing on the birth of Christ is not more than 10 minutes long. But Nguyen uses different illustrations in each homily, tailored for each parish.

Bilingual priests play a crucial role for the diverse ethnic communities in the Catholic Church. The three parishes Nguyen leads have Samoan, Hispanic, Vietnamese and English communities.

Assistant pastors will preside over other Christmas Masses, including those in Samoan and Spanish.

Nguyen said the use of one’s native language unites the generations, from young people who speak English fluently to grandparents who don’t. Their shared language brings family members together, said Nguyen, who came to the United States from Vietnam at age 16.

“They like to celebrate Mass spiritually in their own language,” Nguyen said. “They love their language and they love their culture.”

For Catholics, Christmas is a holy day when they’re expected to attend Mass.

The Mass is the center of Catholics’ spiritual life, focusing on the “true presence of Christ” in Holy Communion, the priest said.

“The people can truly engage with the presence of Christ,” Nguyen said.

At his parish in Tacoma’s West End, McDermott will deliver the homily at six Masses. He will split the duties for presiding at those Masses at St. Charles Borromeo parish with the Rev. Mark Kiszelewski, the parish’s new assistant pastor.

Four Masses will be held on Christmas Eve: at 5 p.m., 7 p.m. 9 p.m. and midnight. Two more will take place on Christmas Day at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.

McDermott, St. Charles’ pastor, expects total turnout will be about 4,000 people. The parish has 2,080 households.

Schedule-wise, McDermott said Christmas Eve and Day is the most intense time of year for priests. He’ll get about four hours sleep after the midnight Mass ends at 1 a.m. and before getting ready for the 8 a.m. Mass on Christmas Day.

“It’s a little shorter night,” McDermott said. “I would say it’s energizing.”

McDermott will deliver his 10-minute homily without notes. But it takes hours of work to prepare.

Each minute of preaching requires an hour of preparation, McDermott said. That includes praying, reading Bible passages and writing out the message.

McDermott said it’s challenging to find a different way for parishioners “to become enthralled by the good news” of Christmas.

“The good news is that God loves us and Jesus is the one that manifests that love, and therefore he’s the savior,” McDermott said

When his duties are done about noon Wednesday, McDermott will spend the rest of Christmas Day with his brother and sister in the Everett area.

By Wednesday night, he said, “you’re pretty tired and ready to go to bed.

“At least, I am.”