ROME – An odd thing about being pope is that while St. Peter’s Square belongs to you, you can’t just pop over and stroll around like an ordinary person. Doing so would cause security nightmares, and likely would also become a mob scene upending whatever sense of relaxation or spiritual repose might have been the aim.
As a result, every year moments are built into a pope’s calendar in which he can visit the square on his own, including the annual display of the Vatican’s nativity scene. It comes each year on New Year’s Eve, after the pontiff has finished celebrating a vespers service in St. Peter’s Basilica and saying the Te Deum in gratitude to God for the year coming to a close.
Shortly after the service wraps up, the pope comes into the piazza, surveys the nativity scene, and has a few moments of silent prayer. Afterwards, he usually spends some time greeting Vatican personnel gathered in the square.
In general, it’s about the least controversial thing a pope does every year. It’s perhaps another sign of the dynamics of the Pope Francis era, however, that some have found a basis for tumult even here.
Ever since the nativity set was inaugurated in early December, it’s generated a wide range of reaction, and not all of it positive. The images are designed to display the corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and so on. The display includes a prominent image of a naked male on the ground reaching up to another man, which some observers have said “steals the scene.”
Fans have found the image of the naked man thought-provoking and dramatic, critics say it’s needlessly racy and distracting. At that level, it’s largely an argument over aesthetics and tastes.
However, there are also politics involved, because this nativity set was prepared by the abbey shrine of Montevergine, located near Naples in southern Italy. As it happens, that abbey also hosts an image of the Virgin Mary that’s been adopted as a patroness by a large LGBT community, which makes an annual pilgrimage there, so some see an explicit link between the Vatican nativity set produced by the shrine and efforts to promote a more “LGBT-friendly” church.
The connection between the nativity set and the Montevergine LGBT pilgrimage was first reported by LifeSite News, quoting a leader of the local LGBT community as saying, “The presence of the Vatican nativity scene for us is a reason to be even happier this year.”
Veteran Italian Vatican writer Sandro Magister recently described the connotations surrounding the nativity scene as an “own-goal” by Pope Francis and his team, meaning a self-inflicted bit of turbulence at the end of the year.
It’s not clear, however, whether Francis even will be aware of that bit of subtext when he makes his visit to the nativity set later tonight.
Traditionally, the pope doesn’t give any sort of talk in front of the scene, known in Italian as the presepe, but often TV cameras following him around pick up snippets of his exchanges with the people on hand, which usually include some of the artists and installers who worked on the nativity set.
Given the background, ears may strain a bit more than usual tonight in an effort to see if the pontiff offers up some impromptu judgment.
On the other hand, it’s probably also important to remember that Francis sees himself as a “Pope of Mercy,” having dedicated a special jubilee year to the theme. No doubt, he’s drawn to the idea of a nativity scene promoting the works of mercy, and may not care to focus right now on whatever its history, defects or possible misinterpretations might be.
As a result, caution probably is in order about over-interpreting tonight’s visit – under the heading, perhaps, that even in a hyper-political age, not absolutely everything a pope does, right up to the stroke of midnight on the last day of the year, necessarily has to have a political edge.