Scouts bringing Bethlehem ‘Peace Light’ tradition to diocese

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

ATTLEBORO, Mass. — With Christmas music already filling the airwaves and preparations for Thanksgiving dinners well underway, it would seem the time is right to usher in the Advent season.

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Members of diocesan Boy Scout, Girl Scout and American Heritage Girls troops will be paving the way for the Prince of Peace as they welcome the return of the Bethlehem Peace Light to the Fall River Diocese during a Mass at La Salette Shrine on November 26.

The Peace Light is a continuously-burning flame, originating from the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, that is transferred via candle and lantern across the world. It is meant to promote peace, harmony and unity among all people regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. The tradition began in 1986 with a Boy Scout from Austria who first extracted the light from the eternal flame where Jesus was born.

Every year since, a child from Austria is named that year’s Peace Light Child and travels to Bethlehem to receive the flame from one of the grotto’s oil lamps, which have been burning continuously for more than 1,000 years. The light is then flown to Austria where it is distributed at a Service of Dedication to delegations of Scouts from across Europe who, in turn, take it back with a message of peace to their own countries. The Peace Light is then shared with individuals, families, churches, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and cultural centers — with anybody who can appreciate the significance of this gift. 

According to Mike McCormack, chairman of the Fall River Diocese Catholic Committee on Scouting, Boy Scouts first brought the Peace Light to the Fall River Diocese in 2015 and distributed it at some small ceremonies.

“The first time it was here was a couple of years ago,” McCormack told The Anchor. “We just kept it within the troop that I was in at the time at St. John Neumann Parish (in East Freetown). Last year we expanded it a little bit more. We probably had about 600 people that we distributed the light to. It was given out to other churches — St. Julie’s in North Dartmouth had it, and a couple of churches down the Cape, too. But this year I really want to try to expand it even more than that.”

While it began as a Boy Scout tradition, McCormack said it has evolved into a symbolic gesture for youth and is now a “Christian thing that goes beyond the Catholic Church.” That is why he sees the Bethlehem Peace Light as something that appeals to people of all faiths.

“In Boy Scouts, we promote ‘Duty to God,’ and the 12th law of Scouting is ‘A Scout is Reverent,’” he said. “When we do our work with the adult leaders, we talk about creating interfaith concepts with the boys. They may have someone sitting next to them who is not Catholic, and that’s probably today even more common.”

This year will see the flame transferred to a special candle in the outdoor manger scene at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette on Sunday, November 26 following a 4 p.m. Liturgy celebration.

Austrian Airlines will be transporting a special lamp containing the Peace Light from Bethlehem to New York City on November 25, where McCormack will pick it up at 2 p.m.

The Peace Light first came to New York in 2001, brought by Canadian Scouts who presented it at Ground Zero.

“I’m actually going to pick it up (the day before) at JFK Airport in New York,” he said. “Then we’ll have 4 p.m. Mass the next night at La Salette Shrine and it will be at Mass and used to light the Advent candle. Then it will be taken in procession over to the (outdoor) manger scene, and it will remain there (burning) all the way through Christmas.”

Scouts will carry the flame to the outdoor crèche where it will remain throughout Christmas and Christmastide. Girls Scouts, Boy Scouts and American Heritage Girls in uniform have all been invited to attend the Mass and will form a walkway from the church to the crèche as the flame is carried. All children are also encouraged to participate, McCormack said.

“I know Boy Scout Troop 333 will be involved, and I’m going to be talking to Troop 164 which is at St. Bernard’s Parish in Assonet,” McCormack said. “I’m a unit commissioner, so I have several troops that I work with, and I’ll talk to Troop 4 and Pack 14. The whole idea is to get as many troops and youth involved as possible. I’m working on getting the word out through email, through flyers, and I am reaching out to contacts throughout the Boy Scout and Girl Scout network.”

After a ceremony at the crèche, a designated Boy Scout will throw the switch to illuminate La Salette’s 500,000 lights that evening.

“The Festival of Lights at La Salette Shrine actually opens on the Friday night,” McCormack said. “We tried to schedule this for Saturday, but the timing was just too much with it arriving so late in the afternoon, and we didn’t want to disappoint people. I know that weekend is usually very busy at the shrine, and Father (Ted) Brown offered to have one of our Scouts throw the switch to light the lights.”

According to McCormack, the Peace Light provides a visible reminder of the mission we all share. As people of faith, our mission is to keep the hope of peace alive in the world, our communities, and our homes.

To that end, many churches share the Peace Light during religious services, use the flame to light the candles on their Advent wreaths, pass the flame from person to person during candlelight Christmas Eve services, present the flame to the community at parish tree-lighting events, and deliver the flame to shut-ins and those experiencing loss, illness and hardships. Some churches also maintain the Peace Light year-round, using the flame to ignite baptismal candles and votive lamps. Individuals and families have shared the Peace Light flame with neighbors, relatives and friends near and far, challenging each recipient to become a channel of peace through his/her words and actions.

“It will be available in a number of locations in the diocese through February 2,” McCormack said. “And if someone is interested in (hosting it), we’ll get the Boy Scouts to bring it or I’ll bring it myself. I’ve met people at McDonald’s and Burger Kings at the side of the road somewhere and we’ve transferred the light to them and they take it back to their parishes.”

Individuals and families in the diocese wishing to receive the flame may do so at St. Mary’s Church in New Bedford at the 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Masses on Sunday, December 3. Those wishing to obtain the flame should bring a candle that will be lighted and then extinguished. The lighting “infuses” the Spirit of the Peace Light in the candle, which may then be relit at home.

This is a perfect way to light a family’s Advent candle and begin Advent. The Bethlehem Peace Light should especially remain in homes during all of Advent and Christmastide, which lasts from Christmas Eve until February 2.

McCormack said he is intent on making the Bethlehem Peace Light an annual tradition here in the Fall River Diocese.

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to start — a tradition that we can continue every year,” he said. “I’m hoping we’ll get a lot of people to call and we’ll get the Peace Light to them. We’ll do it every year and we’ll build on it from there.”

All are welcome to the 4 p.m. Mass at La Salette Shrine on Sunday, November 26. Churches and organizations wishing to obtain the Bethlehem Peace Light to further distribute it may contact Michael McCormack directly at 508-998-1218.

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