GRECCIO, A FRANCISCAN SHRINE OF PRAYER, PEACE AND BEAUTY – POPE VISITS GRECCIO, SITE OF FIRST LIVING NATIVITY SCENE – PAPAL APOSTOLIC LETTER ON THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NATIVITY SCENE

GRECCIO, A FRANCISCAN SHRINE OF PRAYER, PEACE AND BEAUTY

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 VISITS GRECCIO, SITE OF FIRST LIVING NATIVITY SCENE

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.”

PAPAL APOSTOLIC LETTER ON THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NATIVITY SCENE

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.”

POPE IN UAE: “TOGETHER, WE BUILD OUR FUTURE” – CHRISTIANS IN UAE: A LITTLE TREE THAT RESTORES OXYGEN – SAINT FRANCIS AND THE SULTAN

Pope Francis has returned to Rome and, though I’ve not seen confirmation as I write, I’m sure he stopped off at St, Mary Major Basilica to pray, as he always does before and after a trip, before the image of Mary, noted to Romans as Salus populi romani.

He surely is tired after a hectic and very brief time in the UAE, the long flight back to Rome and the traditional on board press conference but Francis is scheduled to preside tomorrow morning at the weekly general audience.

POPE IN UAE: ‘TOGETHER, WE BUILD OUR FUTURE’

Pope Francis on Tuesday wrapped up his Apostolic Visit to the United Arab Emirates, and our correspondent in Abu Dhabi reflects on the historic occasion. (vaticannews)
By Linda Bordoni – Abu Dhabi

As soon as I looked at the programme for Pope Francis’ visit to the United Arab Emirates, I categorized it as a two-fold affair: day one for meeting the Muslim world and pursuing inter-religious dialogue; day two for being with Catholics and affirming them in their faith.

That’s what it looked like on paper, with Monday unfolding in an Arabian Palace, a Mosque, and at an interfaith Conference. And Tuesday started with a visit to Abu Dhabi’s Catholic Cathedral and ended with the celebration of Holy Mass in the presence of 180,000 people.

But no sooner had Pope Francis boarded the papal plane taking him back home to the Vatican, my perception of this intense, whirlwind visit, began to change.

One plea for everyone’s ears
There was no division, I realised, between day one and day two. He was not speaking separately to Muslims and then to Catholics. His vision and his mission are – as always – for one human family, and his plea to build a future together “or there will be no future”, was for everyone’s ears.

Someone who never tires of condemning divisiveness, separation, and the erection of barriers of every kind would never perpetrate that kind of mistake!

In fact, at all moments and in all occasions, the first-ever meeting of a Pope with the peoples of the UAE took place in a joyful atmosphere of mutual respect.

The solemnity of the historic occasion was felt by all, as was a palpable gratitude towards the Crown Prince of the UAE for issuing the invitation and towards Pope Francis for accepting it.

The pledge and the message
Of course, many important words were spoken. A pledge of fraternity between a Pope and a Grand Imam was signed to work together in perpetuity and to reject violence and radicalism. The Pope’s own Catholic flock was reminded it is never alone with Jesus at its side.

But at the heart of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage was an urgent reminder to all – no one excluded – that we are called to look after each other as one human family.

The visit will undoubtedly go down in the books as a milestone in Catholic-Muslim relations. But I was in Abu Dhabi for the occasion, and will never forget that over-arching cry for justice, fraternity, and an end to human misery.

Click here for some video highlights of the papal trip: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2019-02/pope-francis-uae-highlights-video.html#play

CHRISTIANS IN UAE: A LITTLE TREE THAT RESTORES OXYGEN

Pope Francis offers a “re-reading” of the Beatitudes during the celebration of Mass at the conclusion of his brief visit to Abu Dhabi.
By Andrea Tornielli

Seeing them gathered together in the Zayed Sports City Stadium, the “little flock” of Emirati Christians did not seem so little, as Pope Francis told them that living the evangelical Beatitudes did not consist in grand gestures. Although Jesus left no writings of His own, and did not build anything imposing, His very life showed that the Christian faith plays out in the actions of everyday life, and in “littleness.”

Christians are not called to perform great works or accomplish striking, extraordinary, superhuman acts. It is in the extraordinariness of the ordinary that they bear witness. It is thanks to the holiness of everyday life, without extraordinary signs, that the most surprising miracles occur. Thus Christianity flourishes, is communicated by osmosis, without need of marketing strategies, media cleverness, torrents of words, or the abilities of supermen.

The Beatitudes, turning worldly criteria on their head, “invite us keep our hearts pure, to practice meekness and justice despite everything, to be merciful to all, to live affliction in union with God.” It is like a tree, Pope Francis explained, in dry land – like that of the desert that characterises this region of the world – which every day absorbs the polluted air and restores oxygen.

The invitation to this “little flock” of Christians in the UAE is to continue to be an oasis of peace, of meekness, and of mercy – because it is the person who responds to accusations with meekness, who is blessed, rather than the one that attacks or desires to oppress others. The one who considers others as brothers and sisters is blessed, and not the one who sees only enemies.

Pope Francis points to the example of St. Francis of Assisi who, instructing the friars who were leaving for Arab lands, asked them not to quarrel or argue, but to be “subject to every human creature for love of God”, confessing to being Christians. In an age, like today, in which many people clothe themselves in armour (perhaps only virtual), the Pope recalled that Christians set out “armed only with their humble faith and concrete love.” Because the Christian lives only on these, and knows that today it is only by means of this witness that the Gospel is proclaimed. (Analysis by vaticannews)

SAINT FRANCIS AND THE SULTAN

Andrea Tornielli in his last paragraph in the previous article, speaks of St. Francis and his friars in Arab lands, and I found a fascinating story precisely about that visit 800 years ago by Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM on the Franciscan webpage:

FRANCISCANS AND MUSLIMS: EIGHT CENTURIES OF SEEKING GOD

Franciscans and Muslims encountered one another during the lifetime of Saint Francis (1181-1226). Indeed, he sent friars to the Holy Land in 1217. Two years later, Crusaders fought Muslim soldiers at Damietta, Egypt, near the mouth of the Nile. At considerable risk, Saint Francis engaged Sultan Malik al-Kamil, their leader, in peaceful dialogue.

What follows is a brief description of that encounter, based on accounts written soon afterward. The Christian and Muslim armies stood opposite each other at close quarters. The sultan had decreed that anyone who brought him the head of a Christian should be rewarded with a gold piece. Francis, however, the knight of Christ, was unafraid and hoped to realize his ambition of dying as a martyr for Christ. Friar Illuminatus accompanied him.

The Muslim soldiers seized them fiercely and dragged them before the sultan. When he asked why they were sent and by whom, Francis replied courageously that they had been sent by God, not by man, to show him and his subjects the way of salvation and to proclaim the truth of the gospel message. Francis proclaimed the triune God and Jesus Christ, the savior of all, with steadfastness, courage and spirit.

When the sultan saw the little friar’s enthusiasm and courage, he listened to him willingly and pressed him to stay with him. Then he offered Francis a number of valuable gifts, but the saint was anxious only for the salvation of souls and refused the sultan’s gifts. The sultan, astonished at Francis’ utter disregard for worldly wealth, felt greater respect than ever for the saint. (In fact, Francis accepted an ivory horn that is displayed in Assisi’s Basilica of St. Francis.)

Bishop Jacques de Vitry, who was a contemporary of Francis, wrote that the sultan “had Francis led back to [the Christian] camp with many signs of honor and with security precautions, but not without saying to him: ‘Pray to God for me, that God may reveal to me the law and the faith that is more pleasing to him.’” (These texts are from Saint Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis and from Jacques de Vitry’s History of the Orient in St. Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008.)

To continue reading: https://www.franciscanmedia.org/franciscans-and-muslims-eight-centuries-of-seeking-god/

THE INDULGENCE OF PORZIUNCULA, “THE MOST SACRED PLACE OF FRANCISCAN SPIRITUALITY”

The Franciscans and Bishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi announced today, July 4 that Pope Francis will visit the Umbrian village on Thursday August 4. During the afternoon visit to the Porziuncola inside the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, the Pope will officially mark the 8th centenary of the event known as the Pardon of Assisi.”According to Vatican Radio, the papal trip to Assisi is being described as a private pilgrimage to the tiny chapel which St Francis built and where he founded the Franciscan order at the beginning of the 13th century.

The following is a story I did about the Porziuncula and the Pardon after a visit to Assisi.

THE INDULGENCE OF PORZIUNCULA, “THE MOST SACRED PLACE OF FRANCISCAN SPIRITUALITY”

The story of the “Pardon of Assisi” and the Indulgence of Porziuncula is a wonderful story, all the more so if you have a great love for the saint of Assisi or bear his name – Francis (my middle name is Frances).

That Porziuncula website tells us that a small abandoned chapel, situated in an area known in Latin as “Portiuncula” – which means “small piece of land” – was given by Benedictine monks to St. Francis who, having promised the abbot to make it the mother house of his new order, promptly restored it with his own hands.

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It was here that he came to understand his vocation clearly and here he founded the Order of the Friars Minor in 1209, entrusting it to the protection of the Virgin Mother of Christ, to whom the little church is dedicated.

One night in 1216, while Francis was immersed in prayer, a radiant light spread through the little church and he saw above the altar Christ and his Holy Mother, surrounded by a multitude of Angels. They asked him what he wanted for the salvation of souls. Francis’ reply was immediate; “I ask that all those persons who have repented and confessed their sins who will come to this church, may obtain a full and generous pardon, and a complete remission of all their faults.”

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“What you ask is very for is a very great favor,” the Lord said to him, “but of greater things you are worthy and greater things you shall have. I accept your prayer therefore on condition that you ask my vicar on earth, on my behalf, for this indulgence.” Francis immediately presented himself before Pope Honorius III who listened attentively to him and gave his approval. To the question “Francis, for how many years do you wish this indulgence?” the saint replied, “Holy Father, I am not asking for years but for souls.” On August 2, 1216, together with the bishops of Umbria, he happily announced to the people gathered at the Porziuncola, “My brothers and sisters, I want to send all of you to Paradise.”

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The great basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Holy Mary of the Angels), was constructed between 1569 and 1679 in accordance with the wishes of Pope St. Pius V, (1566-72), in order to contain the chapels of the Porziuncola, the original cell where Francis lived and died, the Rose Garden, and the Passing, as well as other places sacred to the memory of St. Francis, and to welcome the visitors from all around the world who came to visit them.

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The powerful earthquakes that struck Umbria in 1832 caused serious damage to the basilica. At the end of a long and complex restoration, directed by the architect, Luigi Poletti, it was reopened for religious celebrations on September 8, 1840. The façade was radically restructured by Cesare Bazzani, with the intention of conferring a majesty worthy of the importance of the Shrine. It was officially inaugurated on June 8, 1930 and an imposing gilded bronze statue of the Virgin Mary was placed on top of it.

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Upon entering the Porziuncola, one is immediately struck by the light and the colors of the Altar Screen of Prete Ilario da Viterbo (1393). The story of the Indulgence of Assisi is recounted in a series of five paintings: Francis throws himself amongst the thorns in order to overcome temptation; he is accompanied by two angels while going towards the Porziuncula;  he contemplates the apparition of Jesus and the Virgin and asks for the plenary indulgence; he asks for confirmation of this from the Pope and finally declares to all the great gift received from Christ and the Church.

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Millions of souls have crossed the threshold of the Porziuncula chapel’s “door to eternal life” and have knelt here in order to rediscover the peace and forgiveness of the great Indulgence. On the threshold of this little church are written the words “hic locus sanctus est,” this is a holy place, because God descended here to meet Francis and whoever enters here in faith.

The Chapel of the Passing is a simple stone building that served as the infirmary for the first friary. St. Francis passed the last days of his life here, and being placed naked on the bare earth, died here on the evening of October 3, 1226, after having composed the final verses of his Canticle of the Creatures:

“Praised be you my Lord, for our Sister Bodily Death from whom no living man can escape: woe to those who die in mortal sin; blessed are those whom she finds doing Your Most Holy Will, because the Second Death will do them no harm.”

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The Rose garden area of the Sanctuary is what remains of the old forest where the friars lived. Here the rose garden is situated amongst whose thorns Francis rolled himself one night in order to overcome doubt and temptation. According to a tradition, already attested to in the thirteenth century, the briars on contact with the Poor Man’s body turned into roses without thorns, and this is the origin of the “Rosa Canina Assisiensis,” which continues to flower only at the Porziuncola.

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TO OBTAIN THE INDULGENCE:

1) Visit the Sanctuary and say an Our Father and the Creed; 2) Make a sacramental Confession and receive Communion at Mass; 3) Say a prayer for the intentions of the Pope.

 

POPE FRANCIS TO SHARE MONTHLY PRAYER INTENTIONS ON VIDEO – FRANCIS AND GRECCIO: SIMPLICITY, AUSTERITY, SPIRITUALITY

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.

POPE FRANCIS TO SHARE MONTHLY PRAYER INTENTIONS ON VIDEO

(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”.

FRANCIS AND GRECCIO: SIMPLICITY, AUSTERITY, SPIRITUALITY

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.

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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.

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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.

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The church adjacent to the shrine:

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