Vatican Nativity scene unveiled

The Vatican's Nativity scene at dusk on Christmas Eve. (CNS photo by John Thavis.)

The Vatican's Nativity scene at dusk on Christmas Eve. (CNS photo by John Thavis.)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican unveiled its Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square at dusk on Christmas Eve. Workmen dropped a white curtain, and a few hundred camera flashes went off as a Vatican police band played. The scene changes a bit each year, and this one featured smaller home settings alongside Jesus’ manger in Bethlehem. A fountain and a hearth represented regeneration and light.

A few changes for the pope’s midnight Mass

VATICAN CITY — Like anyone preparing a traditional Christmas celebration, the pope’s master of liturgical ceremonies said he wants the venerable, tried and true elements to speak to people’s hearts as if they were brand new.

On Monday Msgr. Guido Marini, the papal Mass organizer, gave the Vatican newspaper a listing of rites and furnishings that have been added or moved for the pope’s Yuletide celebrations this year.

First, a prayer vigil will precede the pope’s Christmas Mass at midnight with “an alternation of readings, prayers and music to help the souls of everyone present enter a climate of prayer,” Msgr. Marini said. The vigil will end with the singing of the “kalenda,” an official proclamation of Christmas that had been part of the papal entrance procession for more than 20 years.


Pope Benedict XVI blessed the children who brought flowers to the Baby Jesus during his midnight Christmas Mass in 2007. (CNS/Max Rossi, Reuters)

Then, he said, the bells of St. Peter’s will ring during the singing of the “Gloria” to join the angels in announcing Christ’s birth with joy.

In the past, children from around the world, dressed in their native costumes, would bring flowers to the statue of the Baby Jesus and receive a blessing from the pope during the “Gloria.”  This year, Msgr. Marini said, the children will bring their flowers to the basilica’s Nativity scene at the end of Mass when the pope goes over to lay the Baby Jesus in it.

Another change involves the Vatican’s wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus on her lap — a statue usually placed by the altar on the Jan. 1 feast of Mary, Mother of God. This year, Msgr. Marini said, the statue will be near the altar from Christmas Eve onward in order to “underline how Christmastime is also a Marian time. The Holy Virgin does not take anything away from the mystery of the Son of God made man, but helps us understand its real meaning.”


Pope Benedict XVI at the main altar in the Sistine Chapel Jan. 13, 2008. (CNS photo/Maurizio Brambatti, Reuters)

He also said that on the Jan. 11 feast of the Baptism of the Lord, when the pope will baptize 13 newborn children of Vatican employees in the Sistine Chapel, he would celebrate Mass at the chapel’s fixed altar, as he did a year ago. Under Michelangelo’s fresco, “The Last Judgment,” the altar is against the wall, requiring the pope to celebrate part of the Mass with his back to the congregation.

“Merry Christmas” in Chinese


VATICAN CITY — Every year, Vatican Radio offers Chinese Catholics around the world two special broadcasts of midnight Mass on Christmas Day.

First it will air live over shortwave and the Internet Mass from the radio’s chapel at 7 p.m. Rome time, which will be midnight in Beijing. Then at midnight Rome time, it will broadcast Pope Benedict XVI celebrating Mass live from St. Peter’s Basilica and provide commentary in Chinese.

Vatican Radio’s Jesuit Father Emanuel Lim told me today that a lot of people in China tune into the Christmas broadcasts. He said churches in China get so packed with people that many decide to stay home and follow the celebrations from the Vatican.  

He said a lot of non-Catholics are drawn to the midnight service “because they want to listen to the carols.”

The cardinal’s multimedia “Christmas Puzzle”

ROME — It could easily be called “The Christmas Puzzle,” but in its only concession to formality, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi’s Christmas letter to children in the Archdiocese of Milan is titled “God So Loved the World.”

godsolovedtheworldThe letter doesn’t look like a letter — it’s a short children’s book filled with drawings by two of Italy’s most accomplished children’s book illustrators.

It doesn’t read like an archbishop’s letter — it’s the tale of an archbishop who receives a mysterious package with torn scraps of paper inside.

And it doesn’t sound like a letter — it comes complete with a CD in which professional narrators read the story and one of Italy’s most famous children’s choirs, the Piccolo Coro Mariele Ventre dell’Antoniano, provides the soundtrack.

The letter is not only being distributed to children in Milan parishes; a partial clip is available on YouTube and bookstores throughout Italy are selling the book and CD for less than $5.

The scraps of paper in the archbishop’s mystery box turn out to be the torn pieces of a map of the world taken from an atlas.

Trying to figure out the meaning of the puzzle, the archbishop says, “It doesn’t take much to get it: wars, injustices, hunger and poverty, pollution and global warming, family breakups, loneliness and sadness even for children and the elderly.”

Yet the package is labeled “Anima Mundi,” which the archbishop finds odd since it’s a Latin phrase in a child’s writing.

Since the book is available only in Italian, I’m guessing I won’t ruin the reading/listening experience by revealing that a literally fabulous phone call helps the archbishop understand that it is up to him, to the world’s children and to all people of good will to help put the world back together again.

He also realizes that the real “Anima Mundi,” the saving “Spirit of the world,”  is the spirit of Jesus, “who heals the fractures of our world” with the power of his love.

The letter ends with a goodnight prayer and “Merry Christmas, children big and small. Your archbishop, Dionigi.”

Even at the Vatican, it’s beginning to feel a bit like …


Burlap shields work on the Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square this morning. (CNS photo by Cindy Wooden)

VATICAN CITY — Although shops in Italy will not haul out all of their Christmas decorations until Advent begins Nov. 30, the Vatican seems to be on the North American preparation schedule.

Vatican workers, equipped with hard hats and tool belts, already have spent a week putting up the burlap-covered scaffolding that will keep the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square from public view until Christmas Eve.


A Vatican employee secures the scaffolding around the Nativity scene in front of St. Peter's Basilica. (CNS photo by Cindy Wooden)

This morning, while two workers continued putting together the metal and wood scaffold and covering it with brown burlap, six others were building the frame for the scene itself.

So far, the Vatican has not published the floor plan for this year’s presentation, which is populated with larger-than-life-sized statues of the Holy Family. The Vatican scene usually has several different rooms and, keeping with Italian tradition, changes every year.

The Vatican may not start early according to U.S. standards, but its Nativity scene remains in place long after U.S. stores have decked themselves in red hearts for Valentine’s Day.

Vatican workers won’t be back to dismantle the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square until the morning after the Feb. 2 feast of the Presentation of the Lord.