Like preachers across the country preparing for Christmas services today, William Lori has grappled with the question of how to celebrate the joy of the day so soon after the devastation of Newtown.
But for Baltimore's new archbishop, the challenge also is "rather personal."
Before his arrival here in May, Lori served for 11 years as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. The diocese includes the quiet, leafy suburb of Newtown, where on Dec. 14 a gunman forced his way into an elementary school and shot 20 first graders and six educators to death.
"For me, it's a very real tragedy," said Lori, 61, whose work took him regularly to St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, and who has been communicating with the parish and diocese since the shooting. "I should think it would be the same for any parents who have young kids, or grandparents. It really strikes very, very close to home."
Lori was planning to talk about Newtown on Christmas morning at the Baltimore Basilica.
"One of the things that I'm really thinking about is that the joy of Christmas is not just simply the happiness of what we receive or the festivities that we celebrate," he said last week as he prepared his homily for the 10 a.m. Mass. "Really, the lord came to bring us a much sturdier faith and a much sturdier joy. He came to bring us a love that's stronger than sin and more powerful than death.
"What we're celebrating is something that will, at the end of the day, triumph over even the most inhumane of acts."
Christians will pack churches today to honor the birth of Jesus, whom they believe is the son of God, come to the world in human form to offer salvation and eternal life to mankind.
Americans, religious and otherwise, will gather to exchange gifts, enjoy the company of loved ones and feast on holiday foods.
As always, the focus will be on children — not only the baby Jesus, but also the youngsters eager to see what Santa has brought them.
But for many, this year will be different. Over the last 11 days, Americans have been heartbroken by the killings, the faces of victims who were themselves looking forward to the holiday, the footage of the funeral processions.
Lori was in Rome for meetings when the news came.
"It was a surreal moment," he said. "You'd think any place in the world but Newtown, Connecticut. And I was just — I truly could not believe what I was hearing."
Lori placed a call to Monsignor Robert Weiss, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima.
"And the next thing I know I was on my knees, just praying for these folks," he said.
Communities across the country have held memorials. Families have sent donations. Some have dedicated acts of kindness to the victims.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore is using its website to gather "Spiritual Bouquets," messages of support and pledges of prayers for the victims and their families, St. Rose of Lima and Newtown that Lori plans to send to Weiss.
Lori says St. Rose of Lima, the scene of several funerals, has been receiving dozens of phone calls per hour, and e-mails and visitors.
"People have been asking me here, 'What can we do? What can we do to reach out to these grieving families and this grieving community?' And so in talking with some of the folks up there, they said, 'You know, we've got plenty of flowers and foodstuffs and even donations are rolling in. … But they said, 'What we really need to know is that people are praying for us.' "
Lori sees people turning to God.
"They're praying," he said. "They need to be with the Lord and with one another. And I think that that's the most important thing. We might not have all the answers, and healing is going to take a long time to come. But the important thing is drawing nearer to the Lord, who has drawn so close to all of us by coming among us, by sharing our humanity and by sharing even our death."
In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Christmas services are the best attended of the year. For many who go, it will be the one Mass they attend.
Lori said he prays in the days before Christmas that "something I might say, some aspect of the liturgy or the kindness that people might experience might just be the thing that would trigger people who don't practice their faith regularly to reconsider."
At St. Joseph Church in Fullerton on Monday, red and white poinsettias filled the dias as Lori delivered the homily to a crowd of more than 1,300. He thanked the congregation for its welcome during his first year in Baltimore and reflected on the ways Christians may question their faith in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting.
"Whenever tragedy strikes, people ask, 'Where was God?' We might have asked the same question, not only about Newtown, but about many of the things you and I struggle with every day," Lori said. "Christmas does not offer a glib answer to that question. Instead it offers a profound answer.
"The Christ child was born, not to avert us of the suffering that we impose on ourselves — he does not stay the hand of those who chose not to love — but he came to ensure that sin and death is not the last word about human history and sin and death is not the last word about our lives, either."
After Mass, William and Jane Kuntz of Perry Hall said they found Lori's words inspirational.
"I thought it was really poignant," William Kuntz said. "He refocused on our love for Jesus Christ. And, although it's not always overt, it's important to remember, God loves us."
Lori also is scheduled to appear this morning on Good Morning America. He already has taped the segment, in which he and evangelical pastors Miles McPherson of San Diego and Jeanne Mayo of Atlanta talk about "finding the Lord in the midst of this tragedy, and what we can do to console one another."
"People do flock to church when something really horrible happens," Lori said. "And I can't think of anything more horrible than the death of these innocent children.
"But the reality is we need the Lord and the community of faith all the time. We need the support in our daily life. We need not only the meaning we find, but what we really need is the presence of the Lord.
"And then, when we experience his presence in our life, come what may, we keep our bearings. And we find meaning even in the darkest hours of our lives."