The Vatican’s Nativity Scene was inaugurated on December 10 and the adjacent Christmas tree was illuminated as well, albeit under a pouring rain. The actually inauguration ceremony took place in the Paul VI Hall.

I visited the square yesterday, the second full day of sunshine we’ve had in weeks! It was a joy to be in the square, to take the photos you will see below and to hear people’s joyful and positive comments, especially given the generally negative reception given last year’s nativity scene (remember how some of the characters looked like astronauts and others defied description!). The word heard most often yesterday was “bellissima!” – “very beautiful!”

The text below comes from several vaticannews articles.


This year’s Nativity Scene in St. Peter Square’s is a gift from Peru and comes from the Chopcca Nation, comprised of several communities located in the Huancavelica region in the highlands of the Andes mountains. The scene comprises more than 30 life-sized figurines in typical Andean costumes, made of ceramic, maguey wood and fibreglass, and features alpacas, vicunas and the Andean condor, Peru’s national symbol.

The figurines were created by 5 different artists belonging to the Chopcca Nation. Their name refers to a character that represents a “common ancestor”, and oral sources and accounts date the First Nation to times prior to the arrival of the Incas.

Pope Francis had announced the Andean origin of the 2021 Nativity Scene in October after praying the Angelus when he greeted a group of Peruvian pilgrims who were celebrating the feast of Señor de Los Milagros.

A universal call to Salvation

With its representation of a cross-section of the life of the peoples of the Andes, a Holy See Press Office communiqué explained that the Nativity Scene also celebrates 200 years from the independence of Peru, and symbolizes the universal call to Salvation.

The life-sized figurines representing the Child Jesus, the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the Three Kings and the shepherds are made of ceramic, maguey wood and fiberglass, and will be wearing traditional Chopcca costumes.

Baby Jesus has the appearance of a “Hilipuska” child, so-called because he is wrapped in a typical Huancavelica blanket tied with a “chumpi” or woven belt. The Three Kings are carrying traditional foods such as potatoes, quinoa, and other indigenous cereals, and they are accompanied by llamas with the Peruvian flag on their backs. The birth of the Savior is announced by an angel playing the Wajrapuco, the traditional Andean wind instrument. Indigenous animals such as alpacas, vicunas, and the Andean condor, Peru’s national symbol, are also featured.

The realization of the Andean Nativity Scene was born from the collaboration between the Episcopal Conference of Peru, the Diocese of Huancavelica, the Regional Government, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Embassy of Peru to the Holy See.




Pope Francis dedicated the catechesis of today’s general audience, the last of the year and exactly one week before Christmas, to how we prepare to receive the Lord Jesus and the importance of the nativity scene in that preparation.

“Dear Brothers and Sisters,” began Francis, “In these last days of Advent, we do well to ask ourselves: How am I preparing for the birth of Jesus?

He answered his question by suggesting, “One way to prepare for Christmas is to set up a nativity scene in our homes, churches and public spaces, a lovely tradition that began with Saint Francis of Assisi. The Christmas crèche is a kind of living Gospel, a touching reminder that the Lord showed his love for us by being born as one of us, in order to share in our daily lives, hopes and concerns.”

Pope Francis, in fact, visited the celebrated shrine of Greccio on Sunday, December 1 where he signed his Apostolic Letter Admirabile signum, a reflection on the meaning of the nativity scene. The small grotto here resembles the grotto of Bethlehem where the Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Continuing his weekly catechesis, the Holy Father said, “The name Bethlehem, which means ‘house of breadì, and the image of the manger evoke the meals that we share as families, and the centrality of Jesus, the living bread come down from heaven, in our family life.”

“In this world of frenetic activity,,” stated the Pope, “the Christmas crèche also encourages us to pause and contemplate what is truly important in life. Everything in the nativity scene speaks of the harmony and peace that only Christ the Saviour can bring to our lives and to our world.”

Francis concluded: “As we gaze upon the lowly scene of Jesus’ birth, let us invite him into our hearts, so that each new day can bring spiritual rebirth and preserve in us the joy of Christmas.”

The following photos are of the Vatican’s nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.

For a story about this nativity scene: click here: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/vatican-city/news/2019-12/the-vatican-prepares-for-the-inauguration-of-the-nativity-scene.html



Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Closed for Repairs

If you have tried to enter Rome’s basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva where the body of St. Catherine of Siena lies, and you have found the doors closed, you might have to wait a few years to get back in! I have been in touch with Dominican friends and have learned that the ceiling had started to fall down at the Minerva so Italian government authorities have closed the basilica for repairs. It could be as much as a couple of years, but I heard they are planning to open the sanctuary very soon so people can enter and at least go there. I am not sure when or how that will happen. The Dominican friars who reside adjacent to the church will remain where they are.

The Chapel of Our Lady of San Marco

I came across this chapel a few Sundays ago as I was retuning home after Mass at St. Patrick’s in the center of Rome. I was in Pza. Venezia and transferring from one bus to another to get home. As I walked along Palazzo Venezia, I noticed an open door I had never before seen in all my decades in Rome. I glanced up and saw the Italian name above the door: Chapel of Our Lady of San Marcos!

I was amazed, and I walked in and fund myself in the presence of not just artistic beauty but the Blessed Sacrament on the altar! Two nuns and a handful of lay people were reciting the Angelus – it was indeed noon! I spoke to one of the nuns afterwards and learned that her congregation is the Daughters of the Church.

I went online to learn a bit more about this chapel. The very small and very ornate room you first enter is the original chapel. Also called La Madonnella (little Madonna) di San Marco, this is a late 17th century devotional chapel which was dismantled and inserted into the ground floor of the Palazzo Venezia, a 15th century edifice, in the 20th century. The separate entrance doorway is on the right hand side of the façade of the palazzo on the west side of the Piazza Venezia (the door I entered as you will see in my photos). The chapel is counted as attached to the basilica of San Marco.

The chapel opens just before 7 am and closes at noon, then re-opens at 4 until (I think) 7 pm.

The chapel’s profile was raised in 1957 when Mother Maria Oliva Bonaldo, foundress of the Congregation of the Daughters of the Church established a small convent attached to San Marco, and the sisters have made the chapel a center of Eucharistic devotion. Another adjacent room in the palazzo was taken over and is used as a chapel for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. https://romanchurches.fandom.com/wiki/Madonnella_di_San_Marco

Gaudete Sunday to Mark 50th Anniversary of the Bambinelli Blessing

The third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday, is the day that children of all ages and from all over Rome – and sometimes other towns and cities in Italy – bring their bambinelli, statues of the Baby Jesus, to be blessed by the Pope at the end of the Angelus. These statues will be placed in the cribs of nativity scenes – known as ‘crèches’ in French and ‘presepio’ in Italian, in homes and schools. Many a child holds up two or even three statues for the papal blessing as they bring a bambinello for a friend who could not make it to the Angelus.

This coming Sunday, when Pope Francis recites the Angelus, it will mark the 50th anniversary of the first time children brought their statues of Baby Jesus to St. Peter’s Square. In fact, it was December 21, 1969 that Pope St. Paul VI imparted for the very first time a papal blessing on the statues the children brought to the square.

A Serata for Charity

For decades the Catholic American community in Rome, first at Santa Susanna and now at St. Patrick’s, has held an annual fundraiser for a number of Roman charities on the first Saturday of December. A number of years ago what was a daytime bazaar became a gala serata, or evening, in an elegant atmosphere with dining, dancing, live and silent auctions and a raffle. In recent years all the monies raised have gone to 6 Roman charities.

The evening would never happen if it were not for the most amazing parishioners you’d ever want to meet – those who attend Masses in the chapel at Marymount International School (parents of those who attend MMI) and those who come to St. Patrick’s in the heart of Rome on Via Boncompagni.

The student dining room at MMI is turned into a glamorous venue for one night as you will see in a few of the early photos I took. Members of the SOC (Serata Organizing Committee) meet for many months during the year and for very long hours on the actual gala weekend, putting up, enjoying and then taking down all the decorations.

Our auctioneer par excellence is our wonderful, multi-talented pastor/rector, Paulist Fr. Greg Apparcel. He has been part of the American Catholic community in Rome for almost 20 years and this was probably his last serata. Fr. Steve Petroff is our new assistant rector and will capably take over the reins of the parish and the serata, among other duties, when Fr. Greg leaves.

A comment on two of the photos you will see: You will recognize Janet Morana in one picture dancing with Maria Lina Martin, an astonishing, very much with it, always smiling, enthusiastic 99-year old parishioner! Janet was at the Serata as was Bob Lalonde (who works with Priests for Life) and they were seated next to Maria Lina and kept up a running conversation. Another photo shows the SOC members grouped together at what is now an annual attraction – our photo booth. You can have serious pictures taken or wear one of the headpieces they provide or hold up a crazy sign.

I had interviewed Janet at my home at 5 pm for Vatican Insider, after which we all went to 6 pm Mass at St. Patrick’s (they were leaving early the next morning) and then on to the Serata!

I took just a few photos before a lot of guests arrived but then had to man the table where we were selling raffle tickets for an iPhone Pro and 2 wonderful trips.

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Learn more about this our parish and this special evening here: https://www.facebook.com/cacrome/

Come visit when you are in Rome! Sunday Masses in English at 9 am and 10:30, and coffee and cornetti and other sweets after the 10:30 Mass.

A Roman Restaurant and a Nativity Scene

You know very well, having heard it a thousand times, that one of my favorite restaurants, just 3 blocks from my home, is La Vittoria, owned and run by my friend Claudio and his wife Palmerina and one of their two sons, Leonardo, a great cook and waiter.

Among their Christmas decorations every years is their beloved Nativity scene. I always rejoice when I see it, and yet part of me feels sad as I feel this would not be welcome in America. Imagine the complaints by this or that political group or even individuals if they did not like a restaurant displaying a Nativity scene. We know that even a single, very loud complaint could bring down a Nativity scene!

Thank you, La Vittoria!



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.”


This morning, as is traditional on the Fridays of Advent and Lent, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, delivered an Advent sermon in the presence of the Holy Father and members of the Roman Curia on the theme “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” He preached in the Redemptoris Mater chapel.

Later in the morning Pope Francis had several private audiences and then a meeting with the donors of the Christmas tree and nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, including delegations from Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Veneto, and the patriarch of Venice, Archbishop Francesco Moraglia.

At 4:30 Friday afternoon, members of those delegations and several thousand faithful were in St. Peter’s Square where the Jesolo Sand Nativity scene was unveiled, following which there was the official lighting of the Vatican’s Christmas tree. There was music by the Vatican’s gendarmerie band, songs by choirs from the regions donating the tree and sand sculpture and speeches by various regional and Vatican dignitaries.

EWTN transmits such events live on our Facebook page. Check it out: https://www.facebook.com/EWTNVatican/videos/208441480075008/

I did not make the official ceremony as I’ve been preparing Vatican Insider as well as this column but I’ll go to the piazza shortly to take some photos and perhaps do a Facebook live.

Tomorrow is a very important feast day – feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is a holy day of obligation and a holiday in the Vatican and Italy.


My guest this week on Vatican Insider is one of EWTN’s own in Rome – Ben Crockett – or, as the Register described him in a headline “Meet the Millennial Who Is Taking Virtual Reality to the Front Lines of the Church. California-born, Harvard graduate student pursues his dreams in Rome.”

Ben in Malawi –

Ben is one of the most amiable, talented, hard-working and creative people of the many like people on EWTN’s Rome staff! In the fairly short time he has been with us, he has revolutionized so much in the area of social media, but especially his expertise in VR – virtual reality. You’ve surely seen some of his amazing VR work and maybe did not know he was responsible for it. Well, this weekend you will have the chance to meet this remarkable young man by tuning in to Vatican Insider!

IN THE UNITED STATES, you can listen to Vatican Insider (VI) on a Catholic radio station near you (stations listed at http://www.ewtn.com) or on channel 130 Sirius-XM satellite radio, or on http://www.ewtn.com. OUTSIDE THE U.S., you can listen to EWTN radio on our website home page by clicking on the right side where you see “LISTEN TO EWTN.” VI airs at 5am and 9pm ET on Saturdays and 6am ET on Sundays. On the GB-IE feed (which is on SKY in the UK and Ireland), VI airs at 5:30am, 12 noon and 10pm CET on Sundays. Both of these feeds are also available on the EWTN app and on http://www.ewtnradio.net ALWAYS CHECK YOUR OWN TIME ZONE! For VI archives: http://www.ewtn.com/multimedia/audio-library/index.asp (write Vatican Insider where it says Search Shows and Episodes)


The tree and the Nativity Scene tell us about Christmas and “help us to contemplate the mystery of God who was made man in order to be close to each one of us” said Pope Francis Friday morning as he thanked all the people who donated this year’s Sand Nativity Scene and the 23-meter tall ‎Christmas tree for St. Peter’s Square.

A Tree of Light

Pope Francis described how “the Christmas tree with its lights, reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world; the light of the soul that drives out the darkness of enmity and makes room for forgiveness.”

The Pope noted, that this year’s tree comes from the forest of Cansiglio in northern Italy, and he went on to explain that its’ height symbolized God “who with the birth of his Son Jesus came down to man in order to raise him to himself and raise him from the mists of selfishness and sin.”

Reflecting on the Nativity Scene which this year is made from Jesolo sand native to the Dolomites, the Pontiff pointed out that, “the sand, a poor material, recalls the simplicity, the smallness with which God revealed Himself with the birth of Jesus in the precariousness of Bethlehem.”

The Sand Nativity, symbol of humility and freedom

He went on to tell the donor delegation gathered in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall that, “who is small – in the evangelical sense – is free to express themselves and move with spontaneity. All of us are called to be free before God, to have the freedom of a child before his father. The Child Jesus, Son of God and our Saviour, whom we lay in the manger, is holy in poverty, smallness, simplicity and humility.”

Pope Francis concluded by saying that, “the crib and the tree, fascinating symbols of Christmas, can bring to families and to the places where they are found, a reflection of the light and tenderness of God, to help everyone to live the feast of the birth of Jesus. By contemplating the God Child who shines a light on the humility of the manger, we too can become witnesses of humility, tenderness and goodness.”



I have paid several visits to the 2017 nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square but only today did I bring my camera. I’ll let those photos tell the story of the 2017 Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.

I have been in Rome a lot of years and believe I have photographed every tree and nativity scene since my arrival, and I have to say this is my least favorite ever. It is also probably the smallest, though it may seem large in the photos.

The best ever, in my opinion, were those produced for several decades by the Vatican’s own Technical Services staff – they were brilliant creations, painstakingly and artfully executed. By the way, remember that it was Saint John Paul who brought the idea of a nativity scene and Christmas tree to St. Peter’s Square in 1982.

The tree has been universally praised, but the nativity scene has not received universally favorable coverage. In fact, a close up photo (which I will show you below) of the depiction of the act of mercy of “clothing the naked” on one Facebook page actually caused that page to be banned by FB.

The concept is lovely – speaking of the corporal acts of mercy – but that aspect seems to have faded into the background, at least from what I heard people saying as they viewed the nativity scene (and children, as always, had the best comments!). Remarks are more focussed on the “head” in the jail cell, the unclothed man (clothe the naked), a body on a table (bury the dead), on the fact there are no animals, not a single lamb or ox, on the fact that the Holy Family, the Baby Jesus, seem to get lost in clutter. Yet Jesus, Mary and Joseph – Jesus! – ARE the focus of any Christmas celebration or depiction.

You are standing next to a five-year old who turns to his parents and exclaims (in Italian), “But our presepe (nativity scene) at home is much nicer!”

And today, another youngster asked, “what is that head in a jail or some place?”

The Vatican website (and, as of yesterday, there is a brand new news portal – http://www.vaticannews.va – that’s a whole other news story, not without its critics!) noted before Christmas that, “The crib scene for Christmas 2017 will be donated by the ancient Abbey of Montevergine in the Campania region of southern Italy. The scenery and crib figures, in 18th century Neapolitan costumes, will be produced by artisans in a local workshop. The two-metre high figures, inspired by the theme of the Works of Mercy, will be made of coloured terracotta with garments in traditional fabrics.”

The same note explained that the Christmas tree is a giant, 28-meter high red fir, given, by the archdiocese of Elk in north-eastern Poland. It was transported over two thousand kilometres across central Europe and Italy, before arriving here in the Vatican.

The tree was decorated with stars and baubles designed by young cancer patients from several Italian hospitals. The decorations have been made out of clay by children and their parents during therapeutic workshop sessions and reproduced in hard-wearing synthetic materials that can stand up to the winter weather conditions in St Peter’s Square. A number of children from earthquake-hit areas of central Italy also took part in this design project.

There is an interactive element to this year’s nativity scene and that is actually nice.

I accessed the file, per their instructions, saw a 4-minute video and copied the English text for you exactly as it appeared on my cell phone – here it is:

The nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square is a gift from the sanctuary of Montevergine in the province of Avellino. In the Cernobo, founded by Saint William from Vercelli in the first half of the 12th century, the imposing icon of our Lady of Montevergine is worshipped.

The work was carried out by the Cantone and Costabile workshop in Naples which into 2013 brought to this square the first large Neapolitan crib. The theme is “mercy” all around the scene of the nativity in Neapolitan style of the 18th century. There are several characters who act (out) the seven works of bodily mercy transmitted by the Gospels. These are two or three-inch high-rise figures following the tradition with head, hands and feet of terracotta, eyes of glass and fabric padded-stuffed bodies.

At the center of the composition stands the Holy Family housed in the ruins of an ancient, once-balled temple, a direct setting pointing to how Christianity defeated paganism. The scene is completed by an angel with wings spread, a piper and the Kings, who come to the sight of Jesus led by the starry comment.


As for the other scenes: on the left there is the representation of the work “visiting the prisoners”: the setting is a fictitious cell formed by a grate with a single bar, a metaphor of the human being prisoner of his sins, that refers to an inner inertia that can only cease with repentance and with the reception of God in one’s life.

To be mentioned is also the interpretation of the work “housing pilgrims” represented by a woman who hosts a stranger, to symbolize the welcome in the broad sense, with particular reference to the present and the invitation to except the brother come from a far distance often repeated by Pope Francis.(this photo also has the image of Our Lady of Montevergine)

It is precisely on the representation of this work that there is a branch of the Madonna of Montevergine that remembers the donation of the nativity by the Abbey and emphasizes that the same mother of God constantly welcome so many pilgrims, even in her Irpinian sanctuary.

In the representation of the scene “treating the sick,” master Canton has focused on the dualism between body and spirit; very often, in fact, we focus on the external aspect at the expense of the spiritual one.

“Feed the hungry” and “quench the thirsty” are depicted in a single scene: the character was made with his mouth open and wide eyes, a sign of wonder and amazement in the face of goodness of mind and altruism; instead of being pleased with the gift received, man is astonished by the kindness of action, since in contemporary society Christian values seem to have sunken; the generosity of the neighbor creates wonder and is manifested in the character’s gaze.

In the scene “burying the dead”, is depicted only a falling arm, a reference to the deposition of Caravaggio in the Vatican museums.

For “dressing the naked,” an Academy was created, that is, a character entirely carved; the scene presents two men almost peers, a noble who gives a cloak to a needy lying down and half naked; it is the triumph of charity, and the purpose of donating in the imitation of Christ, who gave his life for the salvation of man.



Sunday, in the splendor of the Sistine Chapel, in a tradition started by St. John Paul on the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, Pope Francis baptized 28 babies – 13 girls and 15 boys – born to Vatican employees. He told them, in an off the cuff homily, that Jesus’ first “sermon” was probably the sound of his crying in the stable at Bethlehem.

At one point, when the crying and cooing of the babies reached a cresendo, Francis joked, “the concert has begun!” He told the mothers, “if your children are crying because they are hungry, then go ahead and feed them, just as Mary breastfed Jesus.”  (photo news.va)


He told his guests that faith does not just mean reciting the Creed on Sundays, but rather believing in the truth, trusting in God and teaching others through the example of our lives. Francis said faith is also the light that grows in our hearts – that’s why a lighted candle is given to every person being baptized. The Ppope told parents, “you have the task of making that faith grow, of nurturing it, so that it may bear witness to others.”

Later, at the noon Angelus, addressing shivering pilgrims in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis asked for prayers for all those living and dying on the streets at this time of year, noting that a number of homeless in Rome have already ready succumbed to the cold.

Papal Almoner Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, who spoke to Vatican Radio, said the three hostels run by the Vatican will remain open 24 hours a day during the spell of frigid weather. Several Vatican cars were also been made available, outside of Vatican City, on Via della Conciliazione, for those who wish to remain on the streets, but could be better protected in a car. In addition, special thermal sleeping bags and gloves are being brought to the homeless.

It has been so cold that the water in the fountains in St. Peter’s Square froze. I took these photos today as I walked through the square to film a segment for “At Home with Jim and Joy.”



I did find one thing rather sad: workers were dismantling both the Christmas tree and the Nativity scene and they will surely be a thing of the past by tonight or tomorrow morning. Why is this sad? Because for all the decades I have lived here, if memory is correct, the tree and nativity scene have remained up until the February 2 feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, allowing a lot more visitors to Rome to view this seasonal gift by the Church to the faithful.





St. Peter’s Square, December 9, 2016 – Official unveiling

of the Vatican Nativity Scene and lighting of Christmas Tree.

The spruce tree is a gift from the northern Italian region of Trentino

and the Nativity Scene was offered to the Vatican by the bishops

and government of Malta. It was designed by Manwel Grech

(you’ve seen my photos and videos of his team) and executed

by him and 7 teammates from Gozo, Malta.

I also posted a Facebook Live video as the ceremony was underway!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree!

How are thy leaves so verdant!

Not only in the summertime,

But even in winter is thy prime. O C

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, How are thy leaves so verdant!

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O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,

Much pleasure dost thou bring me!

For ev’ry year the Christmas tree,

Brings to us all both joy and glee.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, Much pleasure dost thou bring me!



O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,

How lovely are thy branches!

Not only green when summer’s here

But in the coldest time of year.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, How lovely are thy branches!


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O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,

How sturdy God hath made thee!

Thou bidd’st us all place faithfully

Our trust in God, unchangingly!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, How sturdy God hath made thee!





O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,

Thy candles shine out brightly!

Each bough doth hold its tiny light,

That makes each toy to sparkle bright.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, Thy candles shine out brightly!

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In minutes I will be leaving for St. Peter’s Square for the lighting of the Christmas tree and the official unveiling of the Nativity Scene. I’ll obviously try to get some good photos and video – maybe even do a Facebook Live! – and will post those as soon as I have the chance.

In the meantime, here’s a heads-up about my Vatican Insider guest this weekend, and the Pope’s words this morning to the donors of both the Christmas tree and the Nativity scene.


Join me this weekend on Vatican Insider for Part II of my interview with Steve Bollman, founder of Paradisus Dei, a ministry that helps families discover what he calls “the superabundance of God within marriage and family life.” Since its inception, Paradisus Dei has grown rapidly (largely by word of mouth), and has established itself as a large nationwide ministry helping families vis-a-vis husband/wife relationships and parent/children relationships. It has particular strengths in developing compelling programming and helping individuals discover the presence of God in the midst of communion.

During the Great Jubilee, Steve experienced a personal call to found a ministry dedicated to finding God within the context of marriage and family life. In 2001, he founded Paradisus Dei as a lay Catholic ministry and in 2002 he set aside his professional interests as an energy derivatives trader in Houston, Texas to dedicate himself full time to the development of the ministry. (https://www.paradisusdei.org/

As he was about to hold the first meeting at 6am on a weekday morning, he was told no one would show up. However, 150 men came to the meeting. And it kept on growing. The growth has been amazing since then and today Paradisus Dei is in well over 500 parishes in the U.S.

As you know, in the United States, you can listen to Vatican Insider on a Catholic radio station near you (there is a list of U.S. stations at www.ewtn.com) or on channel 130 Sirius-XM satellite radio. If you live outside the U.S., you can listen to EWTN radio on our website home page by clicking on the right side where you see “LISTEN TO EWTN.” Vatican Insider airs Saturday mornings at 9:00 am (Eastern time). On the SKY satellite feed to the UK and parts of Europe, VI airs on audio channel 0147 at 11:30 am CET on Saturdays, and 5:30am and 10pm CET on Sundays. It’s also available on demand on the EWTN app and on the website. CHECK FOR YOUR TIME ZONE.


(Vatican Radio) In the Paul VI hall this morning, Pope Francis met with the donors of the Vatican Christmas tree and the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, telling them that these gifts “form a message of hope and love.”

Welcoming the donors, Pope Francis thanked them for their gifts which he said, would be admired in Saint Peter’s Square “by pilgrims from around the world during Advent and the Christmas holidays.”

The 25-meter (82-feet) high spruce tree was donated by the Lagorai Forests Association in the Trentino region of northern Italy. The Pope remarked that, “the beauty of those views is an invitation to contemplate the Creator and to respect nature, the work of his hands.”

Francis had special thanks for the children who decorated the tree, with the support of the “Lene Thun Foundation” that organizes the ceramic therapy workshops in various Italian hospitals for children undergoing treatment for cancer and other illnesses.

He told them that, “the multicolored ornaments you have created represent the values of life, love and peace that Christ’s Christmas proposes to us anew each year.”

This year’s Nativity scene was donated by the bishops and government of Malta and is the work of artist Manwel Grech from Gozo.

The Nativity scene features 17 figures dressed in traditional Maltese costume as well as a replica of a traditional “Luzzu” Maltese boat.

The Holy Father said that this typical Maltese vessel, recalled “the sad and tragic reality of migrants on boats making their way toward Italy,” and he expressed the hope that “those who visit this nativity scene would be invited to rediscover its symbolic value”, which, he said, was “a message of fraternity, of sharing, of welcome and solidarity.”

Pope Francis concluded by telling his guests that, “the crib and the tree form a message of hope and love, and help create a Christmas spirit that can draw us closer to living with faith the mystery of the birth of the Redeemer who came to this earth in simplicity and meekness.”




As I walked through St. Peter’s Square this morning to go to some Vatican offices, I took a few photos with my phone of the Nativity scene that is under construction near in the square near the obelisk.


The tree has been up about a week but the building of the Nativity scene started only Monday. The tree will be lit and the nativity scene unveiled on Friday, December 9.

It was St. John Paul who started this tradition in the Christmas season of 1982 when he noticed that, with all the great Nativity scenes or presepe in the papal palace and apartments, in Roman Curia offices and in St. Peter’s Basilica, there was no such scene in the square. He asked that henceforth both a tree and presepe be placed in the square.

Trees in the past have come from countries like Austria, Switzerland and Germany and from various regions in Italy. This year features as a 25-meter (82 feet) tall red spruce from Trento, northern Italy. In its place, local schoolchildren have planted some 40 new spruce and larch seedlings to replace trees suffering from a parasite that had killed many of them. After the Christmas season, the wood from the Vatican tree will be used for charity.


The ornaments for this year’s spruce are ceramic and were made by children in hospitals across Italy who are receiving treatment for cancer and other illnesses. The beautiful tree will be lit by 18,000 LED Christmas lights that were chosen to respect the environment. The LED technology allows for very low energy consumption.

Boxes of ornaments –


The Nativity scene this year will pay tribute to the people who are forced to flee their countries and undertake dangerous journeys across the sea. In 2016 alone, says the International Organization of Migration, over 3000 people died in the Mediterranean, although many believe that number is higher as many vessels and sinkings go unrecorded.

As I studied the Christmas scene this morning, it seemed to be that the area enclosed by canvas where workers from Malta are building the presepe, was much larger than in the past, wider for sure. An earlier Vatican communique noted that the Nativity scene will measure 19 meters in width – just over 62 feet – and will feature 17 statues dressed in traditional Maltese costumes as well as a replica of a traditional “Luzzu” Maltese boat.



That communique explained that the boat not only represents tradition – fish and life – but also, unfortunately the realities of migrants who in these same waters cross the sea on makeshift boats to Italy.

And these – if you remember my post on Monday – are the 8 men from the Maltese island of Gozo who are building the Nativity scene.:


Both the Nativity and the Christmas tree will be lit on December 9, and will remain illuminated until Sunday, January 8.


(Vatican Radio) Wednesday morning, before holding the general audience, Pope Francis met the Italo-American movie director Martin Scorsese whose latest film “Silence” recounts the persecution of a group of Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan. Scorsese was accompanied at the audience in the Vatican by his wife, his two daughters, the producer of the “Silence” film and the prefect of the Secretariat for Communications Monsignor Dario Viganò. A Vatican statement said the meeting was very cordial and lasted 15 minutes.


Pope Francis told those present that he had read the novel on which the film “Silence” was based, written by the late Japanese author Shusaku Endo.

Scorsese gave the Pope two paintings on the theme of “hidden Christians,” one of them a much-venerated image of the Madonna painted by a 17th century Japanese artist. Pope Francis gave his guests rosaries.

The audience in the Vatican came after a special screening of “Silence” in Rome on Tuesday night for more than 300 Jesuit priests. The movie is due to premiere in the United States this December.


In his weekly general audience held in the Paul VI Hall this morning, Pope Francis concluded his cycle of catecheses dedicated to the works of mercy, having looked at all 14 spiritual and corporal works of mercy. This also ends his series of weekly catecheses on mercy that began at last year’s opening of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

The Holy Father told those present today that although the cycle has reached conclusion, we must continue to practice mercy in our lives. Many of his remarks during the general audience were off the cuff.

Speaking of the corporal work of mercy which invites us to bury the dead,  Pope Francis said it could appear a strange request. In fact, he said, it is sadly meaningful in the present day when we think of the many people who risk their lives in order to give decent burial to the victims of war who live in fear under constant fire and bombardment.  And for us Christians, he said, burial is an act of great faith because when we lower the bodies of our loved ones into the tomb, we do so in the hope of their resurrection.

He also underscored the importance of praying for the living and the dead which he said is part of the work of mercy of burying the dead, noting this is especially meaningful in this month of November when we commemorate all the faithful departed.

Even more, said Francis, praying for the living and the dead is an eloquent expression of the communion of saints and reminds us of how we are all united in God’s great family.

“This is why we pray for each other” he said.

In one of his off-the-cuff moments, Francis also recalled the story of a young business owner present at yesterday’s daily Mass in the Santa Marta residence. This man, he noted, had to close his company because they couldn’t sustain it anymore. This man, the Pope said, “cried, saying: ‘I don’t feel that I can leave more than 50 families without work. I could declare the company’s bankruptcy: I go home with my money, but my heart will cry my entire life for these 50 families’.”

“This is a good Christian who prays with the works: he came to Mass to pray so that the Lord would give him a way out, not only for him, but for the 50 families,” Francis said, pointing to him as a clear example of what it means to pray for one’s neighbor.

As he concluded, the Pope encouraged the faithful “to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, who knows our deepest desires and hopes, and embrace in our prayer all those in any kind of need:” He also admonished to not forget to thank God for the good things in our lives.”

The catechesis “ends here,” he said. “We made this path of the 14 works of mercy, but mercy must continue and we must practice it in these 14 ways.”


We all know that Pope Francis is a great soccer fan so we could easily imagine his grief when he learned that members of a Brazilian soccer team perished in a plane crash in Colombia minutes before the plane was due to land.

Vatican Radio reported that Pope Francis sent a telegram of condolences to the cardinal archbishop of Brasilia in Brazil following a plane crash that killed 71 people including members of the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense. They were on their way to a South American cup final in Colombia when the accident happened. In the message signed by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Pope Francis said he was dismayed by the tragic news of the plane crash in Colombia that caused numerous victims, and he sent his condolences to all those who are mouning and commended the deceased to God the Father of Mercy.