Fr. Matthew Kaderabek, LC, chaplain of the lower school of Pinecrest Academy in Cumming, Georgia, was invited to bless a nativity scene placed inside the Georgia State Capitol building on December 5, 2017. He spoke with us about the event.
Fr. Matthew, can you please describe the event?
For the past four years, Mrs. Annie Witt has been organizing a Nativity Dedication down at the Georgia State Capitol. It was a simple Nativity blessing ceremony lasting half an hour.
I began the ceremony with a Blessing of the crèche, taken right out of the Book of Blessings. Then I sprinkled the crèche and the entire crowd of about 150 people with holy water. Then the 70 young members of The St John Bosco Academy children’s choir sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
I came back up to the podium and preached a fired-up Advent message to the crowd. Annie told me not to worry about watering down the message just because we were in the State Capitol. She said, “This is our event. We can make it as Catholic as we want.” I let them have it with both barrels, so to speak, drawing from the theme of that Sunday’s Gospel: Stay awake!
“Be ready!” I encouraged them to be like Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi, who were all very ready for Christ Jesus’ arrival, whereas King Herod, the scholars of the law who knew where the Christ would be born, and the innkeepers were not at all ready. I urged them to make time for prayer and works of charity, and rip out bad habits from our lives.
Then we had Agriculture Commissioner, Gary Black, perform two Christmas songs with his bluegrass band, including “O Holy Night.” This man has a big voice and didn’t need a microphone.
Georgia State Senator, Michael Williams, then recounted for the crowd what Jesus was willing to suffer for us in order to save us from our sins. No one was expecting to hear about the Passion of Christ during Advent but there it was.
The school choir sang another beautiful song, and then I came back up to say a closing prayer, and give them all my blessing.
If it is the fourth year, who else has done the blessing?
The first one to do the dedication was Archbishop Wilton Gregory himself. The next year, it was his auxiliary, Bishop Luis Zarama. I’m not sure who did it last year, and this year they ran out of important people to do the dedication, so they asked me.
There must be a reason Mrs. Witt chose you. How do you know her and her family?
Mrs. Annie Witt is a former Pinecrest Academy mom who had two kids graduate from our school in the past few years. She has been the chairperson of the Georgia Nativity Scene Commission whose purpose is not only to celebrate the birth of Christ, Our Lord and Savior, but also to inform the media and public about the constitutionality of private expressions of religious faith in the public square. Getting the Nativity displayed in the public sphere is part of their mission.
She knew me from Pinecrest and she seems to have run out of bishops to do the ceremony.
What is the legal status of this display? How is it possible to put up a nativity scene in a State Capitol given the separation of church and state?
Apparently, some years ago, the Catholic lawyers from the St Thomas More Society in Chicago went to court to fight for the right to display the Nativity in public places, and they won their case. The last three years, Annie has been allowed to leave the Nativity up in the Capitol for one week.
Unfortunately, someone in the Capitol or from the ACLU didn’t want this to happen this year, so they put new conditions on Annie and told her that she could only display the Nativity for a week if she put it up and took it down every day! Sadly, she wasn’t organized enough to line up a crew of volunteers to do this each day since it is not easy to get downtown to the Capitol, so at the end of the day, she had to take the Nativity down. We’ll see what she is able to do next year. She is a pretty determined woman.
What was your personal experience of the event?
I thought it was very beautiful to be witnessing for Christ at the Georgia State Capitol. Preaching the word of God at the State Capitol added a bit of nervousness and excitement, on government property for the first time in my life. There’s a certain human respect wondering if you’ll have a receptive audience, but the audience was almost entirely Catholic and really receptive.
How did the people react?
The Georgia Senator, Michael Williams, who isn’t Catholic, was impressed and thanked me for the Advent message I preached. The children in the choir looked very receptive and very attentive during my talk.
What do you think it says to have a public display of religion like a nativity scene in a public building like the State Capital?
I think it serves very well to remind the world what Christmas is all about. As the bumper sticker says: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” It is so easy to get caught up in Christmas shopping and Christmas parties that people easily forget it’s Jesus that we’re celebrating. To be able to have a nativity set up right where the whole world sees it is a beautiful way to witness to what the season is about. It shows Christ loved us enough to come down from his heavenly throne to save us.