As late-autumn cold made its presence known Tuesday night, Dec. 3, those gathered within South Philadelphia’s St. Paul Church looked warmly upon the prospects of diminishing the dismay that the death of loved ones leaves them feeling during the Christmas season.

Some three dozen attendees listened to a compassionate talk by Rev. Joseph Leggieri and Rev. Marianne Robbins, whose mentions of global Advent traditions served as metaphors for how their healing processes can provide lasting self-knowledge.

(See a photo gallery of the event here.)

“When we consider loss, what we come to find is that there is not much to discover,” said Rev. Leggieri, a United Methodist minister and director of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Pastoral Care Program. “The most important lessons end up being about ourselves and our ability to grow when faced with the question of how we will go on when we’ve lost someone who has been so vital to us.”

Joined by Rev. Robbins, who is a Presbyterian minister and the associate director for pastoral care at Jefferson Hospital, Rev. Leggieri has long enjoyed a thriving friendship with St. Paul’s pastor, Father John J. Large, so much so that last Tuesday’s gathering marked the 31st time that he has spoken to a parish that the latter has helmed.

In venturing to the church located in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, Revs. Leggieri and Robbins stressed the uniqueness of everyone’s path to acceptance and growth.

Rev. Joseph Leggiere speaks from personal experience about getting through the holidays after the loss of loved ones. (Photo by Sarah Webb)

Having chuckled at Father Large’s point that each year’s interactions with the suffering yield a new approach to remaining faithful followers of Jesus Christ, Rev. Leggieri mentioned the Argentinian children’s tradition of placing shoes by their door of their homes on either the feast of St. Nicholas or Epiphany.

“They are looking for treats and rewards, and they’re always so excited,” he said of the children. “It might be tough for us to feel similar joy this time of year because we’re going through it without someone special, but we can liken ourselves to those children and still have our shoes filled, so to speak, with the love of family members and friends who remain with us and still encourage us to see ourselves as blessed.”

Rev. Leggieri referred to moments of calm as “a small snack” that serves as a “little piece of hospitality” on which we can feed to persevere. Having lost his son, Brian, to a brain tumor decades ago when the boy was just 11, he has needed to rely on many such symbolic meals.

The same was true for Rev. Robbins, who recalled Sweden’s Lucia candle celebrations and her time as Lucia to explain how she has dealt with the sting of losing her parents.

“Christmas is always going to be about the light of the world and how the love that our Father has for us can touch every dark corner of our lives,” she said. She added that just as nobody should judge us for our sadness, no one should rush how quickly we let light brighten our journeys.

Rev. Leggieri continued his snack idea by talking about the Advent season’s Knocking Nights that occur in Germany. Each Thursday in Advent children wear costumes and make noise so as to drive away negativity, earning rewards for their duties.

A tree in St. Paul Church in South Philadelphia displays an ornament each with the name of a deceased loved one to be remembered in prayer. (Sarah Webb)

He also touched on the affinity that Italians, in particular, have for nativity scenes, the mention of which won favor with the audience as Rev. Leggieri explained how the absence of the Baby Jesus until Christmas Eve can serve as a symbol for the loss that we often feel over our deceased loved ones.

“With the Knocking Nights and the Nativity, we learn that there is hope and that we will again be able to push aside our fears and realize that our loved ones live forever in the depths of our hearts,” Rev. Leggieri said before joining the group at a Christmas tree within the church.

There, with the attendees singing “Silent Night” and Rev. Robbins offering a prayer, they stood with candles around the tree that contained ornaments bearing the names of their remembered friends and family.

St. Paul parishioner Anthony DiFlorio is preparing for the second Christmas without his mother, Emily.

“I try to keep myself active and to maintain a feeling of gratitude for the time we had together,” said the recent retiree of the 22-month period since he lost his matriarch. “Certain things, however, bring the grief back, so I appreciated what the speakers said about taking your time and seeing that there’s hope when you seek people out and keep believing that although we might be tempted to ask him what it is, God has a plan for each of us.”

Rev. Marianne Robbins, associate director of pastoral care at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, leads the group at St. Paul church in a final prayer. (Sarah Webb)