ROME — The Vatican’s Christmas nativity scene has an unusual addition this year: a spire from one of the dozens of churches and basilicas that were damaged or destroyed in this year’s central Italy earthquakes.
The spire from the St. Benedict Basilica in Norcia, along with some rubble, lay next to the life-sized nativity scene that was unveiled Friday at a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square.
The Vatican said offerings left there will go toward rebuilding the Norcia church oratory, damaged Oct. 31.
Pope Francis urged visitors to recall that Jesus was a refugee of his time, born in a manger because there was no room at an inn.
He said: “Those who visit this scene are invited to rediscover its symbolic value, a message of fraternity, sharing, welcome and solidarity.”
In a surprise yet expected visit in early October, Pope Francis went to Amatrice, the Italian city devastated in late August by a magnitude 6.2 earthquake. He also went to the “red zone,” closed off because it’s considered unsafe.
“From the first moment, I felt the need to be here. If I didn’t come before it is because I didn’t want to disturb you, considering your situation,” Francis said.
“I pray for you. Closeness and prayer, this is what I offer you.”
Close to 300 people were killed, thousands injured and displaced, and churches, shrines and other artifacts of Catholic culture damaged or destroyed in the August 24th earthquake.
In Amatrice alone, 234 people lost their lives that day. According to the mayor, the town basically is “no more.” The town, some two hours away from Rome, is known to generations of Catholics around the world as the birthplace of a fabled pasta sauce called amatriciana.
The earthquake caused an estimated $4.5 billion in damages.
During his private visit, which was a surprise for most, Francis greeted hundreds of people, including some 100 children from the local school.
The Vatican announced later in the day that the pope had lunch at a residence for the elderly in the province of Riete, called “San Raffaele Borbona.” He greeted the 60 patients – most of whom lost their homes in the earthquake – one by one, and had lunch with them.