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.

Church teachings in your pocket

VATICAN CITY — The U.S.-based Apostolate for Family Consecration is offering bishops attending the world synod on sacred Scripture a free MP3 video player preloaded with commentaries on church teaching.

a logo from the Apostolate for Family Consecration

A logo from the Apostolate for Family Consecration.

The black, pocket-sized video player has more than 45 hours of Cardinal Francis Arinze giving colorful commentaries on Scripture, catechetics, and Vatican II teachings. The Nigerian-born cardinal is prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

The gift is part of an wider initiative the international lay movement is promoting during the monthlong synod. They have invited synod bishops to attend a one-and-a-half-hour presentation Oct. 8-10 to hear and ask questions about the movement’s catechetical materials and formation programs.

Apostolate members came to Rome after visiting Hong Kong and Myanmar, where they spoke with church leaders about offering catechetical training to local Catholics and bringing their materials into local dioceses so as to help families bring Scripture into their daily lives.

If you feel left out because you are not a synod bishop, not to worry: many of the apostolate’s materials are available for free online, and videos and audios are easy to download onto your own MP3 player at the apostolate’s Web site,

Died in his sleep

VATICAN CITY — Thirty years ago today I walked into the office of the Rome Daily American at 6:45 in the morning and began ripping the AP and Reuters newswires for a 7 o’clock radio news show. When I saw the teletype machines, I froze. At the top of each were two bulletins announcing the death of Pope John Paul I after only 34 days in office.

A few minutes later I found myself announcing on Radio Daily American that the “smiling pope” had died in his sleep the night before, at the age of 65. The news show was not much more than a headline service, but I promised details to come, and then ducked out of the building for a quick espresso.

When I walked into the corner bar, the first words I heard were: “L’hanno ammazzato.” “They killed him.” I can’t remember whether the phrase was pronounced by Sergio, the barista, or one of his customers, but it seemed to be the general consensus of the Roman street that day. The pope was known as a good and decent man, and the popular imagination was already conjuring up a plot to explain his untimely demise.

And in Rome, the popular imagination tends toward poison. Hadn’t a Russian Orthodox Church leader, Metropolitan Nikodim, dropped dead a couple weeks earlier during a meeting with the pontiff after drinking a cup of coffee? Perhaps the coffee had been meant for the pope. Or so went the thinking in Sergio’s bar.

It turned out that John Paul I had serious circulation problems — so serious, in fact, that his legs were badly swollen, he complained of pain and his closest aides wanted to summon a physician shortly before he died. The medical facts did not, however, stop the rumor mill from turning. In 1984, British author David Yallop published an investigative book, “In God’s Name,” which hypothesized that the pope’s death may have been an inside job.

In 1989, another British writer, John Cornwell, wrote a book that took Yallop’s theories apart. Written with Vatican cooperation and titled, “A Thief in the Night,” it found that the late pope felt unwell throughout his month at the Vatican and talked repeatedly of dying. Sources quoted by Cornwell said the pope questioned why the College of Cardinals had chosen him and spoke of “the foreigner” who would replace him.

For some reason, I saved those AP and Reuters bulletins from Sept. 29, 1978. I found them recently, tucked inside a book of Italian poetry. With them was a third item, heralding the arrival of John Paul I’s successor, the foreigner.

Spotlight on evolution

Charles Darwin is pictured at Down House in Kent, England, in this photo circa 1880. The English naturalist formed the theory of evolution by natural selection. (CNS/English Heritage, National Monuments Record/HIP/Art Resource)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is about to unveil another upcoming international conference on evolution, this one  on the topic, “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories. A Critical Appraisal 150 Years after `The Origin of Species.'”

Scheduled for March 3-7, 2009, the Rome conference is being organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University and the University of Notre Dame, under the sponsorship of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Next Tuesday, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the council for culture, and other Rome academics will present the initiative to Vatican journalists.

The Rome conference will take place a few weeks after the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the English naturalist who wrote “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. The work established evolutionary theory as the dominant explanation of biological diversity in the world.

The Vatican’s interest in the question of evolution has intensified in recent years. This fall, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will take its most systematic look at evolution in an Oct. 31-Nov. 4 conference on the theme, “Scientific Insights Into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life.”

Over the summer, the Vatican newspaper ran a series of articles on Darwinism, creation and intelligent design. In a nutshell, they said evolution and Christian faith are compatible as long as evolutionary theories do not exclude a greater divine plan.

Pope Benedict XVI has also shown a keen interest in the issue and its implications for the faith. He described creation as an “intelligent project” in 2005 and hosted his former doctoral students in a symposium about evolution in 2006.

Last-minute Vatican visit by Mrs. Cheney

VATICAN CITY — On my way to the Vatican press hall this morning, waiting for the crosswalk light to turn green, I was kind of shocked to see a large convoy of black vehicles with U.S. plates and insignia speed by.

Big burly men with flak jackets leaned out of SUVs and scoped pedestrians — I suddenly realized it probably wouldn’t be a very good idea to stick my hand in my bag just then to pull out my sunglasses. So I just squinted in the glare trying to catch a glimpse of who the visiting dignitary might be.

Turns out Lynne Cheney, wife of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, was being escorted away from the Vatican after an unofficial visit to the tomb of St. Peter. The event was planned at the last minute, according to an official at the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office responsible for the upkeep of St. Peter’s Basilica and the vast necropolis below.    

The vice president, who has been meeting with Italian officials this week to discuss U.S. concerns over Russia’s actions against Georgia, did not take part in the private tour of the Vatican necropolis.

The second-century subterranean burial ground includes the spot where St. Peter’s tomb has been venerated since early Christian times. For the past decade, the Vatican has been using state-of-the-art techniques to repair, restore and conserve the tombs and funerary artwork.

After making obligatory reservations in writing in advance, most visitors interested in seeing the necropolis have a long wait to get in on a tour. However, exceptions are obviously made for visiting VIPs.

One official at the Fabbrica told me they were quite proud so many high-level government officials and their family members from around the world have come to visit the underground mausoleums and the tomb of St. Peter, adding it was hoped these government leaders “get inspired” by the life and example of the martyr buried there.