Why the Pope visited Greccio
In this old hilltop town in the Italian province of Rieti, St. Francis used the manger to teach the poor how the Nativity Scene could turn their humble abodes into cathedrals, showing them how each person can transform their dwellings, with even the simplest of means
It was the Christmas of 1223, three years before his death, when he decided he wanted the manger to have a live donkey and live oxen. His confrere and biographer, Tommaso da Celano, describes how it was at night time and in the heart of the forest of Greccio (in the Italian province of Rieti), crowds of people gathered around the hut he had had set up, holding torches and candles. It was the manger as we know it today. A priest celebrated midnight mass. He, being just a deacon, sang the Gospel of the Nativity (In principio erat Verbum…) and then preached: “whenever he pronounced His name with infinite tenderness he called Him the ‘little Babe of Bethlehem’”.
Three years before he breathed his last breath, St. Francis had wanted the manger to have a live donkey and live oxen. It was thus that the “Little poor Man of Assisi” taught the poor how to transform their humble homes into cathedrals during the Christmas period, with the Nativity Scene; he showed them how to transform their dwellings, with the simplest means.
The word “manger” appears three times in Luke’s Gospel, in the second chapter: “she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” The expression is used again when the Angel reassures the shepherds who are startled by a sudden glow which lit up the night-time sky: “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” The shepherds hurried off and “found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger”.
In early Christianity it was common to find Nativity Scenes in cemeteries and places of worship, often without the crib. Much later on, the Latin expression “praeseps” (meaning “manger”) came to conjure a completely different idea of the Nativity. A host of other characters deriving from folklore were added to the Gospel story, alongside the original protagonists. The ox and the donkey, however, were exceptions, they are present in all mangers regardless of era and place. Who introduced them is a mystery but they appeared very early on. Whoever added them to the Nativity Scene was inspired by a verse written by the Prophet Isaiah (1,3) who reprimands those who have abandoned and disowned their Lord, when “the ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand”.
Everything, therefore, points to Pope Francis visiting Greccio yesterday in order to underline how the kind of Nativity Scene wanted by the Saint whose name he bears, was a way to bring Jesus Christ closer to the neediest and destitute, in a concrete way. The needy and the destitute – who are at the heart of Pope Francis’ pontificate -, not only the rich, could and still can built a manger.
In a statement to Italy-based Catholic television network, TV2000 and Italian Catholic radio network InBlu, Mgr. Domenico Pompili, Bishop of Rieti, spoke about yesterday’s visit to Rieti and the Franciscan shrine of Greccio: “The Pope expressed the wish to get to know Greccio and the place where the manger tradition began, spreading across the whole world thanks to St. Francis. So in his response to an invitation, just before Christmas, he informed me he would be paying a strictly private visit, precisely because he wanted to enter the place where the first Nativity Scene was displayed in 1223.”
The Franciscan friars there were astounded by the Pope’s visit. Fr. Alfredo Silvestri, guardian of the Greccio shrine, told TV2000 that when “the Pope arrived, we were unprepared. I wasn’t even wearing the habit at the time so I quickly rushed off to the refectory to put it on. Then I opened the gate to let the Pope in. The most touching scene of all was when Francis kissed the altar where we celebrate the Eucharist every morning. It was a moving gesture.”
“The Pope,” Pompili continued, “arrived in the late morning and told me that to be polite, he came to greet the bishop first. Then we went to Greccio together” but “before visiting the shrine, the Pope met a group of 150 young people who were holding a meeting in our diocese: he made a surprise entrance from the back of the hall and spoke off the cuff for about 10 minutes, before an audience of wide-eyed young people who never dreamed they would see him that close up”.
Pompili added that the Pope spoke to young people “about the star that represents our choice of path. Francis stressed that without that star we find ourselves in a dangerous situation because all of us nee a star to follow. He then referred to the Baby Jesus who is the sign of God’s humility as well as a clear reminder that we are called to reach out to the least, the defenceless and the marginalised. He ended his visit by having some selfies taken. The whole occasion as very informal. It was a beautiful and intense moment.”
Francis then made his way to the shrine of Greccio, where “he spoke to the friars that look after the frescoed space where the first manger stood and signed the guest book,” the Bishop of Rieti added.
Pompili emphasised that the Pope “was fascinated by this very peripheral place and that coming into physical contact with this ancient space was a very intense moment for him. He spent a few moments in silence before the medieval fresco of St. Francis which is flanked by a fresco of the Virgin Mary who is breast feeding the Child Jesus. The Pope stood silently for quite a while gazing at this fresco.”
Finally, Pompili shared one other detail regarding the Pope’s visit: “We talked about St. Francis and tried to retrace his footsteps in this land. We also spoke about the life of the diocese and as always the Pope expressed his fatherly closeness. While we were speaking, a priest called but I was unable to answer the telephone. The Pope told me I “should call him back today”, as if to say it’s best not to keep one’s colleagues waiting. It was a lovely piece of advice.”