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Seeing a camel, donkey or goat strolling along Georgia Street in downtown Indianapolis at any other time of the year would be shocking. But they’ve become an anticipated cause for smiles and joy in mid-December at St. John the Evangelist Parish’s Christkindl Village.
The animals are part of a live Nativity scene, just one of many ways the one-and-a-half day festival seeks to fulfill its main purpose: to evangelize.
“It brings Christ into the streets,” says Father Rick Nagel, the parish’s pastor. “Our mission is to catechize and share the Good News of the Incarnation.”
He recalls a volunteer telling the story of overhearing a child at the event last year “saying to his parents, ‘Mom, Dad, these people are so happy. I like this place.’
“It’s as simple as that,” says Father Nagel. “The Catholic Church gets such bad news and black eyes. This [event] turns it so that even a little kid can see the Catholic Church is alive and well and joyfully living the Gospel.”
The festival, which is free and runs this year from 5-9 p.m. on Dec. 16 and noon-9 p.m. on Dec. 17, developed out of the parish’s 175th anniversary in 2013.
“We had a planning team for the whole year,” says Father Nagel. “One of the ideas that came up was to start a festival.”
The idea of a German Christkindl (“Christ child”) Market was offered.
“The market idea wasn’t appealing because it supports the consumerism [of Christmas],” Father Nagel says. “We wanted to focus on a Christkindl Village, a real experience of Christmas with a live Nativity, kids learning about the symbols of Christmas, have caroling and sacred music. What a better way to share the Good News of the real meaning of Christ the Incarnate in the streets of Indy.”
The timing was fortuitous. When members from St. John approached the community improving non-profit organization Downtown Indy in October of 2013 about using Georgia Street for a Christkindl Village event, they were told that then-mayor Greg Ballard wanted to start a holiday festival in the city that very year.
With just two months to make it happen, the parish “jumped in,” says Father Nagel. With the help of Downtown Indy, the festival came to life.
But the event was plagued by bad weather the first two years. By the third year, the continuation of the Christkindl Village was in jeopardy.
“We took it in prayer and said, ‘Lord if you want this, send good weather,’ ” recalls Father Nagel. “We weren’t sure if people weren’t coming because of the weather, or if they weren’t interested.
“Lo and behold, the Lord blessed us with a good weather year. It was a huge success. Thousands of people came.”
Scott Knust, chair of the parish’s evangelization committee, is grateful that the Christkindl Village has continued.
“It gives parishioners something to invite people to,” he says. “There’s a power of evangelization in inviting people. Maybe they know someone who isn’t Catholic who’d be intimidated to go to Mass. This is a non-threatening way for people who may never have experienced the Gospel.”
The live Nativity is one example of how the event evangelizes in a non-intimidating way, says Bri Campbell, a senior at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, president of the university’s Catholic Student Organization and an intern at St. John. She helps coordinate the young adults of the parish who populate and manage the live Nativity.
“It’s done a really good job of pulling people in in a non-threatening way,” she says. “People are drawn to it because you don’t usually see a camel in the middle of downtown. But it celebrates what Christmas really means.”
Festivities revolving around the live Nativity include candlelit Christmas caroling, an area where children can dress up as Mary, Joseph or a shepherd, and a small petting zoo.
“They really did a great job of coming up with ways for people to interact with the story of the Nativity,” Knust says, noting that the children’s craft area also serves as a tool for evangelization.
“All of the children’s games are focused on the Incarnation, not the cultural Christmas. They can maybe make a candy cane toy and learn the symbolism of the shepherd’s staff, or make little Nativity characters. There’s teaching in all we do.”
A large part of the evangelization comes in the form of church tours offered throughout the event.
The tours developed out of the parish’s efforts during the Super Bowl in Indianapolis in 2012. The parish, which was located in the midst of the “Super Bowl Village,” took advantage of the event to “open wide the doors for Christ,” as St. John Paul II encouraged, by offering church tours.
“Out of our Super Bowl experience came our confidence to share the Good News by giving tours of the sacred space, not only showing people the beauty of the church but also weaving in how everything is used to point us to God,” Father Nagel explains. “So it’s a catechetical experience as well. We call them tours, but once people are in, it’s more than a tour.”
St. John parish pastoral council chairman Joe McGuire, who has conducted tours, explains.
“We can explain that Jesus is present in the tabernacle,” he says. “We can show them the Gothic pulpit, our confessional, the different chapels, and all our beautiful stained-glass windows above our pipe organ that dates to 1893, and how the stained-glass windows reflect different biblical images and tradition of our faith. It gives us just a great opportunity to evangelize.”
For those who cannot or do not want to take a tour, this year an “Ask-a-Catholic” booth will be available in the back of the church. The church will also be open for a youth concert on Dec. 16 at 6 p.m., followed by candlelit Christmas caroling around the live Nativity scene. An adult choir concert will be held on Dec. 17 from 5-6 p.m.
A new addition to the festival this year is an outdoor eucharistic procession on Georgia Street between Capitol and Illinois streets following the adult choir concert.
“We’ll process with Jesus out into street led by a couple of our parishioners expecting a child,” Father Nagel explains. The couple will dress as Mary and Joseph, with the young pregnant woman riding a donkey. “She’ll be leading [the procession]. It’s that image of Mary as the first tabernacle.”
She will be followed by a canopy with Father Nagel carrying a monstrance containing Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, followed by people singing Christmas carols.
“Cards will be passed out explaining what is going on—Jesus is carried into world, Jesus in the real presence,” he says. “It’s so good for us as Catholics to bring Jesus to people and to celebrate his real presence in our own lives. What better way to do that than a eucharistic procession.”
The procession will end back in the church for the Dec. 17 vigil Mass at 6:30 p.m.
In addition to the live Nativity, church tours, eucharistic procession, concerts and a heated tent for children’s crafts, the Christkindl Village also offers an alpine slide, vendors in booths made to look like German huts, food, a heated beer and wine tent, a luminary path and even a person dressed as St. Nicholas telling the story of the actual saint.
Visitors are not the only ones who benefit from St. John’s Christkindl Village. Members of the parish also benefit, says Campbell.
“It brings us closer together,” she says. “It makes an opportunity for new relationships among parishioners. As a student, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the older parishioners or those not in my age group because we collaborate with them.”
“Any time you have an opportunity for volunteering, it’s good for the parish,” he says, noting that it takes about 150 volunteers to make the event happen. “You get to know the people you volunteer with. At Mass, you don’t get to talk to people, so it builds community.”
While Father Nagel admits that he is praying for good weather again this year, he says the parish will continue hosting the Christkindl Village.
“We’re committed now,” he says. “We’re in for a lifetime.”
(The Christkindl Village will be held at St. John the Evangelist Parish, 126 W. Georgia St., in Indianapolis, along Georgia Street between Capitol and Illinois streets from 5-9 p.m. on Dec. 16 and from noon-9 p.m. on Dec. 17. For more information, log on to www.stjohnsindy.org/christkindl-village.html.) †