I have been to the Franciscan shrine at Greccio several times over the years, always enjoying the wonderful, beautiful, peaceful countryside in Umbria that surrounds this shrine where St. Francis set up the first living nativity scene in 1223 and where he is said to have written the Canticle of the Creatures. The shrine has been called “the new Bethlehem” because of Francis’ living nativity scene.

Several years ago I joined ORP, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, for a daylong visit to this shrine and to a nearby building that houses pilgrims who walk the Via Francigena, an ancient road and pilgrim route running from France to Rome and points south where ships left nearby ports for all destinations Holy Land. Many say this cammino actually began in England at the cathedral of Canterbury. This route through several countries and stunning scenery had many names over the centuries but by the ninth century, pilgrims called it the Via Francigena.

In the following slide show, you will see the Umbrian countryside, the approach to the shrine, the stairway to the terrace level of the shrine, the rooms where Francis slept, where he prayed and where he instituted the first living nativity scene. I have took photos (naturally!) of the nativity scene in the back of the church, St. Francis and St. Clare in stained glass, two lovely doors on the church, decorations on the side walls, and much more.

I’ve also inserted some photos into the article on Pope Francis’ visit yesterday, December 1, to Greccio.


Pope Francis made a brief visit to the Italian town of Greccio on Sunday, to sign his Apostolic Letter “Admirabile signum” on importance of the Christmas crèche.
By Devin Watkins (vaticannews)

During his brief trip to Greccio on Sunday afternoon, Pope Francis paused to pray at the site where Saint Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene. The small grotto resembles the tiny cave of Bethlehem where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Frescoes from the 14th century adorn the cave’s walls, depicting Mary breastfeeding the Christ Child and Saint Francis kneeling in adoration.

There the Pope signed his Apostolic Letter Admirabile signum, a reflection on the meaning of the nativity scene.

Simplicity of silence and prayer
Pope Francis then spoke to the faithful gathered in the Shrine of the Holy Valley.

“How many thoughts crowd the mind in this holy place!” he exclaimed. But, he noted, the rocks where Saint Francis found inspiration for the first manger scene are an invitation to “rediscover simplicity. …There is no need for many words here, because the scene before our eyes expresses the wisdom we need in order to grasp what is essential.”

The crib reminds us to find moments of silence and prayer in the midst of our hectic lives.

“Silence, to contemplate the beauty of the face of the Child Jesus, the Son of God born in the poverty of a stable,” he said. “Prayer, to express our amazed “thank you” at this immense gift of love we have been given.”

Enchanting image
Pope Francis called the nativity scene a “simple and enchanting image” that manifests the great mystery of our faith: “God loves us to the point of sharing our humanity and our lives. He never leaves us alone.”

Let us be like the shepherds of Bethlehem, said the Pope, and accept the invitation to “go to the cave, to see and recognize the sign that God has given us.”

This, he said, will fill our hearts with joy and allow us to take that joy wherever there is sadness.

Light up the night
In conclusion, Pope Francis said we should look to the Child Jesus and identify ourselves with Mary who, with her husband Joseph, placed her Son in a manger because there was no room in an inn.

“May His smile that lights up the night, dispel indifference, and open hearts to the joy of those who feel loved by our Heavenly Father.”


Pope Francis has written an Apostolic Letter on the meaning and importance of the nativity scene. He signed the Letter during his visit on Sunday afternoon to the Italian town of Greccio.
By Vatican News

Greccio is the mountain village where Saint Francis of Assisi created the first crib scene in 1223 to commemorate the birth of Jesus. Pope Francis returned to the town on Sunday to deliver his Apostolic Letter entitled, “Admirabile signum.”

An enchanting image
The Latin title of the Letter refers to the “enchanting image” of the Christmas crèche, one that “never ceases to arouse amazement and wonder”, writes the Pope. “The depiction of Jesus’ birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God”, he says.

A living Gospel
“The nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture”, continues Pope Francis. Contemplating the Christmas story is like setting out on a spiritual journey, “drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman.” So great is His love for us, writes the Pope, “that He became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with Him.”

A family tradition
The Pope hopes this Letter will encourage the family tradition of preparing the nativity scene, “but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.” Praising the imagination and creativity that goes into these small masterpieces, Pope Francis says he hopes this custom will never be lost “and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived.”

The Gospel origin of the crèche
Pope Francis recalls the origin of the Christmas crèche as related in the Gospels. “Coming into this world, the Son of God was laid in the place where animals feed. Hay became the first bed of the One who would reveal Himself as ‘the bread come down from heaven’.” The nativity scene “evokes a number of the mysteries of Jesus’ life and brings them close to our own daily lives”, writes the Pope.

Saint Francis’ crèche in Greccio
Pope Francis takes us back to the Italian town of Greccio, which Saint Francis visited in the year 1223. The caves he saw there reminded him of the countryside of Bethlehem. On 25 December, friars and local people came together, bringing flowers and torches, writes the Pope. “When Francis arrived, he found a manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey.” A priest celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, “showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist.”

The start of the tradition
This is how our tradition began, continues Pope Francis, “with everyone gathered in joy around the cave, with no distance between the original event and those sharing in its mystery.” With the simplicity of that sign, Saint Francis carried out a great work of evangelization, he writes. His teaching continues today “to offer a simple yet authentic means of portraying the beauty of our faith.”

A sign of God’ tender love
Pope Francis explains that the Christmas crèche moves us so deeply because it shows God’s tender love. From the time of its Franciscan origins, “the nativity scene has invited us to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ the poverty that God’s Son took upon Himself in the Incarnation”, writes the Pope. “It asks us to meet Him and serve Him by showing mercy to those of our brothers and sisters in greatest need.”

The meaning of the crèche elements
Pope Francis reflects on the meaning behind the elements that make up the nativity scene. He begins with the background of “a starry sky wrapped in the darkness and silence of night.” We think of when we have experienced the darkness of night, he says, yet even then, God does not abandon us. “His closeness brings light where there is darkness and shows the way to those dwelling in the shadow of suffering.”

The landscape
The Pope then writes about the landscapes that often include ancient ruins or buildings. He explains how these ruins are “the visible sign of fallen humanity, of everything that inevitably falls into ruin, decays and disappoints.” This scenic setting tells us that Jesus has come “to heal and rebuild, to restore the world and our lives to their original splendour.”

The shepherds
Turning to the shepherds, Pope Francis writes that, “unlike so many other people, busy about many things, the shepherds become the first to see the most essential thing of all: the gift of salvation. It is the humble and the poor who greet the event of the Incarnation.” The shepherds respond to God “who comes to meet us in the Infant Jesus by setting out to meet Him with love, gratitude and awe”, he adds.

The poor and the lowly
The presence of the poor and the lowly, continues the Pope, is a reminder that “God became man for the sake of those who feel most in need of His love and who ask Him to draw near to them.” From the manger, “Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalized.”

Everyday holiness
Then there are the figures that have no apparent connection with the Gospel accounts. Yet, writes Pope Francis, “from the shepherd to the blacksmith, from the baker to the musicians, from the women carrying jugs of water to the children at play: all this speaks of everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way.”

Mary and Joseph
The Pope then focuses on the figures of Mary and Joseph.
“Mary is a mother who contemplates her child and shows Him to every visitor”, he writes. “In her, we see the Mother of God who does not keep her Son only to herself, but invites everyone to obey His word and to put it into practice. Saint Joseph stands by her side, “protecting the Child and His Mother.” Joseph is the guardian, the just man, who “entrusted himself always to God’s will.”

The Infant Jesus
But it is when we place the statue of the Infant Jesus in the manger, that the nativity scene comes alive, says Pope Francis. “It seems impossible, yet it is true: in Jesus, God was a child, and in this way He wished to reveal the greatness of His love: by smiling and opening His arms to all.” The crèche allows us to see and touch this unique and unparalleled event that changed the course of history, “but it also makes us reflect on how our life is part of God’s own life.”

The Three Kings
As the Feast of Epiphany approaches, we add the Three Kings to the Christmas crèche. Their presence reminds us of every Christian’s responsibility to spread the Gospel, writes Pope Francis. “The Magi teach us that people can come to Christ by a very long route”, but returning home, they tell others of this amazing encounter with the Messiah, “thus initiating the spread of the Gospel among the nations.”

Transmitting the faith
The memories of standing before the Christmas crèche when we were children should remind us “of our duty to share this same experience with our children and our grandchildren”, says Pope Francis. It does not matter how the nativity scene is arranged, “what matters is that it speaks to our lives.”

The Christmas crèche is part of the precious yet demanding process of passing on the faith, concludes Pope Francis. “Beginning in childhood, and at every stage of our lives, it teaches us to contemplate Jesus, to experience God’s love for us, to feel and believe that God is with us and that we are with Him.”


I arrived back in Rome yesterday after a fabulous Christmas and New Year break in Wisconsin and Illinois with several friends and a ton of relatives, mostly the young and very small kind! I finally met Harry, 15 months-old, the only one of my 20 great-nieces and –nephews that I had not met! And he will have a sibling in early March! I cherish every minute with family and always wish I could spend more time, although I’d have to zigzag across America – Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Wisconsin, Arizona, Oregon and California – if I wanted to do it all in one trip!

It portends to be a quiet week for Pope Francis, with the exception of his visit yesterday afternoon to Greccio and Mass tomorrow morning in St. Peter’s Basilica for the feast of the Epiphany, a holiday in the Vatican and in Italy. The weekly papal schedule I check at Vatican Radio indicated no planned activities for today, Thursday or Friday.

However, I do have two stories for today: the papal visit to Greccio (including some photos I took there on a visit a while back), and announcement about Pope Francis’ monthly prayer intentions.


(Vatican Radio) – Starting Wednesday January 6, the traditional monthly prayer intentions of Pope Francis will be available on video, thanks to a new initiative launched by the worldwide Apostleship of Prayer.

The Apostleship of Prayer, set up in 1844 by a group of Jesuit seminarians in France, is also launching a new international website and app aimed at facilitating collaboration and sharing of resources between teams from the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network.

Click To Pray is an App launched in November 2014 by the Apostleship of Prayer in Portugal to help young people to pray. In August 2015, the app was presented to Pope Francis during a private audience and the latest version will go live in January in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French.

The production of a video with Pope Francis sharing his monthly prayer intentions was done in collaboration with CTV, the Vatican Television Centre. The video, in 10 langauges, will be available on YouTube as well as on social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, encouraging people all over the world to pray with the Pope each month. The first video will feature the Pope’s prayer intention for January: “That sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of peace and justice”.


The “Francis” in the title could easily refer to St. Francis or Pope Francis, although similarities might end with the beds: I imagine the 21st papal bed is more than the 13th century “bed” used by the saintly Francis – a wood floor with a rock for a pillow!

Pope Francis made a private visit to the Italian hilltown of Greccio in the Lazio region north of Rome on Monday afternoon. Greccio is celebrated as the place where, in December 1223, St. Francis set up the first nativity scene, using local animals and a carved image of the Christ Child in a manger to recreate the events of Our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem.

The tradition continues in the same hillside cave which has become a popular local shrine, and visitors can also see the monastic cell in the nearby convent where St Francis slept.

Pope Francis, in late morning, first went by car to Rieti, where he met privately with Bishop Domenico Pompili with whom he had lunch. Afterwards, accompanied by the bishop, he left for Greccio, arriving shortly before 3 p.m. He greeted a group of young participants in the diocesan meeting “Giovani Greccio 2016.” He also visited the adjacent church.

Upon arrival at the shrine he was welcomed by the Franciscan friars, and paused to pray before the fresco depicting the first creche realized in Greccio by St. Francis of Assisi. He then greeted the Franciscan community and, after a brief visit, departed by car for Rome. (Vatican Radio, VIS)

I have a special place in my heart for Greccio, especially after a visit a couple of years ago with Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi.

Before we visit the shrine, here are some pictures of the countryside around Greccio and at the shrine.

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As a tourist officer told us about Greccio, “Francis is everywhere at Greccio — in the impossibly small cell where he slept; in the equally cramped, five-foot-wide stone corridor ’dormitory’ for his early followers with crosses carved in the wall, apparently to mark individual ‘beds’; in another rough-rock cell outside where the bulging mountain forms a wall.”

Those “rooms” are reached by these stairs.


Saint Francis, we are told, was very fond of the inhabitants of Greccio for their piety and austerity of life and he was close friends with one Giovanni Velina who, many say, was a landowner who supported Francis in his project to represent the birth of Christ.

The founding of the hermitage is steeped in legend. According to one local myth, Francis asked a young boy from the village to throw a chunk of coal in order to establish where the convent was to rise. From the doors of the city, the coal landed on the spur of rock where the sanctuary stands today.

Another legend has it that Francis asked a young man who had a bow and arrow to shoot one arrow and wherever it landed, the hermitage would be built. That arrow traveled what should have been an impossibly long distance and landed very high on the hills of Rieti where today we visit the Greccio shrine.

The antechamber to the room where the first living nativity scene was in 1223, and the “nativity” room. The 1223 living presepe scene is re-created every year.

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Over the years the sanctuary expanded from just a few rooms, and in the last years of Francis’ life, a small community was established there and Greccio was the only Rieti valley settlement that built structures dedicated exclusively to the friars during Saint Francis’ life.

Our visit to various rooms used by Francis, his followers and those who came after him brings us to the church that Saint Francis built in the early 13th century. It is covered by a barrel vault ceiling decorated with a star-speckled sky and the image of Saint John of Parma. The furnishings are quite interesting: the stalls in the choir, the lectern, and the rotating wooden support of the lantern that illuminates the pages of the choir book.

The choir room.

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The shrine also houses the Saint Bonaventure Dormitory. Legend says that it was erected during the period Bonaventure was Minister General of the Order (1260-1270). A narrow hallway in wood leads to fifteen small cells that are also in wood. The friars lived in these simple yet evocative spaces for centuries until 1915 when they moved into the upper floors of the building.



According to legend, the first cell on the right sheltered two extraordinary friars: Saint Bonaventure, whom the structure was named after, and Saint Bernardine of Siena.


The church adjacent to the shrine:


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