ROME – Just as with department store windows in the United States, reminders in Rome that Christmas is coming seem to start popping up earlier and earlier ever year. Of course Italians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but it’s worth pointing out that Turkey Day just happened and it feels like Christmas season is here.
This week, for instance, the Christmas tree to be displayed in St. Peter’s Square arrived at the Vatican.
It’s an 82-foot-tall fir tree, cut down on Nov. 13 in a forest outside the small town of Scurelle (13,000 souls) in the northern Italian province of Trento. The Italian army moved it in a helicopter to a staging location, where it was put on a truck for the ride to Rome.
It’s already been put up in the square, which is the traditional annual signal that the holidays are upon us.
Also this week, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo launched its 41st annual exhibit of 11 nativity scenes from around the world, while Vatican personnel are working feverishly to prepare the massive nativity scene that each year dominates St. Peter’s Square.
During a presentation of the exhibit last Thursday, local schoolchildren performed a “living” nativity scene, while Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, now the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, was on hand.
(In a touching footnote, the theme of the living scene was “In Amatrice, the bell tower strikes the Holy Night,” a tribute to a small Italian town famed for its pasta sauce that was wiped out by an August 24 earthquake.)
The Roman Academy of Arts also held an event for children aged 4 to 11 on “the nativity scene as play,” teaching kids how to make their own.
All this offers a reminder of just how central the iconography of Christmas, especially the nativity scene, is to Catholic culture. Herewith, then, three things one can glean about Catholicism from observing the special place that the nativity scene occupies in the Vatican, and in Catholic hearts.
“We’re all Franciscans now”
Tradition has it that the very first nativity scene, a living one, was invented by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, after he visited the Holy Land and was inspired by seeing the birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem.
Of course, tradition attributes an awful lot to St. Francis, some of it apocryphal, but it’s unquestionable that the Franciscan order over the centuries has done a great deal to promote the custom of erecting nativity scenes, either living ones or static, to mark the Christmas season.
It’s a reminder that while the Franciscan impulse of embracing poverty and focusing on the earthy, popular level of the faith was something of a revolution in the 13th century, it has since become a constituent element of Catholic life and practice – not just for members of the Franciscan order, but for everyone.
The nativity set reflects both the love of poverty and popular religion, since it celebrates the birth of God’s son in humble circumstances and also the desire many ordinary Catholics feel for a public, colorful, tactile expression of their faith.
In the days after 9/11, it was commonplace for newspapers all over the world to carry some form of the headline, “We’re all Americans now.” That sentiment may have faded in the years since, but here we are eight centuries later still putting up nativity scenes, so perhaps we can say, “We’re all Franciscans now.”
History’s first pope named “Francis,” obviously, puts an exclamation point on the idea.
The divine and the human
In the abstract, one might be tempted to regard the nativity scene, which Italians call a presepe, as the least likely thing imaginable in the Church that would stir controversy.
You might think that – and, it turns out, you would be wrong.
Aside from the fact that in various parts of the world, including the United States, there have been lawsuits attempting to challenge the erection of nativity sets in public places as a violation of church/state separation, even in the Vatican – where, let’s face it, separating church and state has never been on the table – the annual nativity set has found itself in the eye of a storm.
Back in 2011, when the first Vatican leaks scandal erupted featuring private Vatican documents published in the Italian media, one of those revelations came from a letter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, at the time the number two official in the government of the Vatican City State and later the pope’s ambassador to the United States.
Writing to Benedict XVI in March 2011 pleading not to be sent away, Viganò said he still needed to clean up “many situations of dishonesty and corruption,” citing specifically the bills for the last couple of nativity sets in St. Peter’s Square. Two years before, he said, the tab ran to almost $600,000, and the next year it was over $300,000.
The suggestion appeared to be that not all the money was necessarily going to buy more straw for the manger scene, but was perhaps lining someone’s pockets.
(For the record, in 2012 the Vatican announced it was only spending about $180,000, in an effort to exercise discipline.)
The fact that even something as innocuous and almost universally cherished as the annual nativity scene could become a lightning rod is a reminder of a key point about Catholicism: The divine and the human are inevitably intertwined, and if somebody’s looking for a purely angelic church, they probably should take their business somewhere else.
The Catholic imagination
The late Father Andrew Greeley, who died in March 2013, remains one of the most fascinating and provocative personalities American Catholicism ever produced. A priest, novelist, media commentator, and sociologist, Greeley’s contributions over the years are far too numerous to catalog here.
One of his core insights, however, was the idea that one difference between Catholics and followers of other faiths, or of none, is that Catholics see the world through a “sacramental” lens. Words and concepts aren’t enough – Catholics need to be able to see, touch and taste expressions of their faith in order to make sense of the world.
What’s underneath all that, Greeley believed, is a profound Catholic conviction that God is revealed in creation, and that the world, for all its faults and sin, is nevertheless capable of being a carrier and instrument of holiness.
(Typically for Greeley, among other things, that’s why he thought Catholics have sex more often and enjoy it more.)
Here’s how Greeley put the idea in his book The Catholic Imagination:
“Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures.
“But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.”
Perhaps the idea of a distinctive Catholic imagination can be pushed too far, but there’s obviously something to it, and you’ll never get a better manifestation of what it’s all about than walking around the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square – which is, once again, coming soon.