01/02/2013 04:31 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Christmas Comes to the Americas: Now What?

Feliz Navidad and Merry Christmas! Yes, I know that New Year's Day has already come and gone. But the beautiful Christmas songs that continue at daily Mass in the Catholic Church remind me that Dec. 25, 2012, was not the end of a season but the beginning. Everywhere around me, lights are being taken down and trees are being sent off for mulching. At Mass, however, the sounds of Christmas will mingle with poinsettias, Nativity scenes, and the good company of God's faithful until we commemorate the Baptism of Our Lord on Sunday, Jan. 13.

Material culture has turned Christmas into an end point. (The shelves have to be cleared for Valentine's Day merchandise after all!) But Christmas is all about new beginnings and lasting consequences -- the Mystery of the Word made Flesh and how we strive to disern and live out the implications of that gift in our daily lives. On Dec. 25, 1527, in a manner fully harmonious with this notion of new beginnings, Christmas came to the Americas.

A Franciscan missionary named Pedro de Gante described the event (and its lasting significance) to King Philip II of Spain in a letter written 30 years after the fact. De Gante is an important figure in the early history of the Americas. Born around 1480, this lay brother of the Franciscan Order arrived in the colony of New Spain on Aug. 13, 1523. He quickly set about the work of converting the indigenous people of Mexico's central valley to Christianity and, in a world where Europeans had little else in common with native culture, music assumed a central role.

It was in the process of going forth and preaching the Gospel to all creation that de Gante became the first teacher of European music in the Americas. An early multi-culturist, he embraced local norms and made the Catholic adoption of indigenous song traditions a priority.

De Gante's letter to Philip II reflected on the early years of his mission. After noting early successes with the indigenous nobility he turned to a far more difficult period during which he found it nearly impossible to connect with the broader segment of the native population.

His solution?

Observing that all native worship was done by singing and dancing before their gods, de Gante composed a Christian song that was to be performed in the natives' customary manner. Following a rehearsal period of about two months, the song-and-dance ceremony was premiered in the large courtyard of the monastery of San Francisco in Mexico City on Christmas night during the fourth year of his apostolate in New Spain.

De Gante regarded the Christianized song-and-dance ceremony performed on Christmas night a pivotal moment in the evangelization of New Spain. By his account, a crowd of people from distances as far as 35 miles away came together to form a congregation of thousands. "In this manner," he wrote the king, the natives "first came to the obedience of this Church and, since then, the churches and the courtyards swell with people."

By merging sound Catholic doctrine with native cultural practices Pedro de Gante created an attractive form of Christian worship and instruction that proved effective where other methods had not. Christmas night, 1527, marked a new beginning for the natives of New Spain and the consequences of that profound conversion continue to unfold today, not only in Mexico, but also in areas of the southwestern United States that were once part of New Spain (and, later, Mexico).

The Catholic evangelization of the Americas began in earnest during the 16th century and music played a central role. Nearly half a millennium is a long time but, if recent voting trends among Catholics are any indication (and I believe they are), the work of evangelization is only scarcely underway. It is otherwise hard to explain the apparent support among Catholics for policies that are in direct opposition to Catholic teaching -- particularly on those things that matter most: religious liberty, social justice and the sanctity of human life.

For a growing number of Catholics in the Americas, sound doctrine has been overshadowed by cultural practices -- the tools of evangelization that were supposed to make the teachings more accessible. The music is beautiful -- one of God's many gifts -- but faith has to run deeper than that.

As American Catholics enjoy the Christmas songs and carols that will continue until the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, it would be worthwhile to reflect on how seriously the Church's teachings are being put into practice. There is still time for a new beginning. May every song, every prayer, every thought and action fulfill the will of God and exalt it above all things for ever and ever. Gloria in excelsis Deo.