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Pope's letter on nativity scenes shares the story behind a beloved Christmas tradition

Greccio, Italy, Dec 1, 2019 / 08:45 am (CNA).- Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter Dec. 1 on the meaning and importance of nativity scenes, calling for this “wonderful sign” to be more widely displayed in family homes and public places throughout the world.

“The enchanting image of the Christmas crèche, so dear to the Christian people, never ceases to arouse amazement and wonder. The depiction of Jesus’ birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God,” Pope Francis wrote in Admirabile signum, meaning “A wonderful sign” in Latin. 

“With this letter, I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares,” he said.

Pope Francis traveled to the Italian town of Greccio -- where St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in 1223 -- where the pope signed the letter on the first day of Advent.

“In front of the crib we discover how important it is for our life, so often frenetic, to find moments of silence and prayer. The silence to behold the beauty of the face of the baby Jesus, the Son of God, born in a lowly stable,” Pope Francis said in Greccio Dec. 1.

The letter details the story behind St. Francis’ first nativity scene, or crèche. The saint asked a friend 15 days before Christmas to help him prepare “to bring to life” the memory of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

“When St. Francis arrived, he found a manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist. At Greccio there were no statues; the nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present,” the letter explains.

The first biographer of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, wrote that someone present at the Mass had a vision of the baby Jesus himself lying in the manger.

“In a particular way, 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. Implicitly, it summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross,” Pope Francis wrote.

The apostolic letter contains a meditation on the meaning and symbolism of different elements found in a nativity scene, including St. Augustine’s reflection on the significance of Jesus, the bread of life, being laid in a manger where animals feed: “Laid in a manger, he became our food.”

“Setting up the Christmas crèche in our homes helps us to relive the history of what took place in Bethlehem,” Pope Francis wrote.

“When, at Christmas, we place the statue of the Infant Jesus in the manger, the nativity scene suddenly comes alive. God appears as a child, for us to take into our arms. Beneath weakness and frailty, he conceals his power that creates and transforms all things,” he said.

Pope Francis encouraged parents to share this nativity tradition with their children, and said that one’s childhood memories of the joy and wonder of the nativity help one to recall the “precious gift” of faith passed down within families.

The pope also gave his approval for children and adults who love to add to the nativity scene other figures that have no apparent connection with the Gospel accounts, as is a common practice in Italy and parts of Latin America.

“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 the everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way, born whenever Jesus shares his divine life with us,” he said.

On Dec. 5, the Vatican nativity scene will be revealed and the Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square will be illuminated.

“As we contemplate the Christmas story, we are invited to set out on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman. We come to realize that so great is his love for us that he became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with him,” Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis prays for Iraqi people after 45 killed in protests

Vatican City, Dec 1, 2019 / 06:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis said Sunday that he was grieved to hear of the deadly violence against protesters in Iraq and expressed his closeness to the entire Iraqi people.

“I am following the situation in Iraq with concern. I learned with grief that the protests in recent days have received a harsh reaction, which has caused dozens of victims. I pray for the dead and the wounded,” Pope Francis said in his Angelus address Dec. 1.

“I am close to their families and to the entire Iraqi people, invoking from God peace and concord,” the pope said.

Iraqi security forces shot and killed at least 45 protesters on Nov. 28, according to Reuters. The Prime Minister of Iraq Adel Abdul-Mahdi announced the following day that he would submit his resignation to parliament.

At least 400 people have died since anti-government protests began across Iraq in October. The Associated Press reports that Iraqi security forces have used live fire, tear gas and sound bombs against the thousands of Iraqis protesting in the streets of Baghdad.

Iraqi priest Fr. Salar Kajo from Tellesqof in the Nineveh Plains told CNA that people in Iraq are protesting because they have lived for years without human dignity.

“We are suffering from the corruption of the government, and also the division between the people. They divided us into Shia groups and Sunni groups and Christian groups. We are not feeling that we have a country, a nation,” Kajo said Nov. 25.

“These protests are to tell to the world that we are not like this: We love each other and we do not want to be divided just because of Iran and just because of some political persons or political party,” he said. “We want to live in full dignity of every human person.”

Fr. Kajo’s parish, St. George in Tellesqof, was burned by the Islamic State in 2014. He said that his church has now been rebuilt, but fewer than half of the families in his parish have returned to their homes, and until now the security situation has remained unstable.

The priest said that he wishes he could join the young people who are protesting to show his solidarity, but he is not permitted to go to the protests by the Kurdistan region.

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq told CNA on Nov. 25 that the Church is in solidarity with the protest movement in Iraq:

“The Church has made it clear that we are in solidarity with all of the demands of the protesters looking for a just life and services, a life with dignity. We made it clear that we are with them, also strengthening the voice of those protesters for a dignified living for all Iraqis.”

Pope visits place of first Nativity Scene, in Italian town of Greccio

Pope Francis makes a brief visit to the Italian town of Greccio on Sunday, to sign his Apostolic Letter “Admirabile signum” on importance of the Christmas crèche.

Pope writes Apostolic Letter on the significance of the Christmas crèche

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.

Pope Francis laments violence against Iraqi protesters

As violence against protesters escalates in Iraq, Pope Francis expresses his concern and sadness over the death of more than 400 people during the last two months.

Pope at Angelus: Advent helps us find Jesus in the needs of others

Ahead of the Angelus prayer on Sunday, Pope Francis reflects on the meaning of the Advent season, and invites us to pay attention to the needs of those around us who suffer.

Pope at Mass: Consumerism is a virus that attacks the faith

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday for the Congolese community of Rome, praying for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo and denouncing those who enrich themselves through the arms trade.

Evangelization must start with encountering Jesus, pope says

Vatican City, Nov 30, 2019 / 03:02 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis on Saturday called for a “free and simple Church” which shares the Gospel without worrying about appearance or profit, but is motivated by an authentic encounter with Christ.

“I would like to tell you very simply: the joy of the Gospel comes from the encounter with Jesus,” the pope said.

“When we meet the Lord, we are inundated by that love of which he alone is capable,” he said. This love transforms our whole life, and “the need to announce it arises spontaneously, it becomes irrepressible.”

Pope Francis spoke Saturday to participants in a Nov. 28-30 international meeting on “Evangelii Gaudium: The Church which goes forth.”

The meeting, organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, gathered bishops, religious and laity from across the globe to discuss the pope’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

In his address, which took place in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, the pope pointed to the example of Mary Magdalene, who becomes the first to share the Good News of the Resurrection.

While Mary Magdalene came to the tomb filled with pain and sadness, her encounter with the Risen Lord changed her sorrow into joy, which she in turn shared with the Apostles, the pope said.

“The experience of so many people today is not far from that of Mary of Magdala,” he continued. “Nostalgia for God, for an infinite and true love, is rooted in the heart of every man.”

Evangelizing means meeting these people in the journey of life, Pope Francis said. Those who evangelize “can never forget that they are always on the road, searching together with the others…He knows no enemies, only traveling companions.”

He urged those present not to hold back due to a fear of making mistakes, noting that everyone has weaknesses, but when we prioritize the Good News, we allow God’s grace to work through our imperfect efforts.

If we truly believe that God is love, he said, we come to realize that no effort carried out with love and patient generosity on our part will be wasted.

Pope Francis also cautioned against the temptation to discouragement when things do not go as planned.

“Sadness is not a Christian virtue,” he said, giving the example of the early Christians who were persecuted yet maintained joy and did not fall into defeatism.

This can be a difficult task, the pope acknowledged, but keeping the proper perspective allows Christians to return again and again to Christ, the source of their hope.

He encouraged them to pray daily to the Holy Spirit that they may maintain “the missionary ardor that makes life a love story with God.”

Pope to school children: “I can” must become “we can together”

Pope Francis on Saturday met some 3,500 school boys and girls, aged 6-16, along with their parents and teachers, who participated in the “I Can” Children’s Global Summit in Rome.

Pope: We need a free and simple outward looking Church

Pope Francis on Saturday receives those taking part in the International Meeting “Evangelii Gaudium: Reception and Perspectives. The “Church which goes forth"”. Over the last three days participants including Bishops, religious and lay people from all over the world have been gathered in the Vatican to discuss the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation six years on from its publication.