By Catherine Smibert
ROME, DEC. 23, 2004 (Zenit.org).- This is the 21st Christmas that president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Archbishop John Foley, is celebrating in Rome.
One of his duties over these years has been to give the commentary for the live broadcast for the Midnight Mass with John Paul II. For the American archbishop, the Christmas Eve Mass is one of the Vatican’s standout celebrations.
“I consider it a great privilege to do the commentary because it’s a marvelous work of evangelization,” he says.
Only is the broadcast reaching Catholics, he says, “but, there’s also an opportunity for others around the world who are watching casually, maybe even by accident, to understand what Catholics believe; why we believe it; why we worship in the way we do.”
Archbishop Foley points out that it is a time where many gain answers to their question “What is so wonderful about the Christian faith that more than 2 billion people in the world consider themselves Christians? — with more than 1 billion considering themselves Catholic Christians, united in one Church, under the Vicar of Christ, our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, the successor of Peter.”
The archbishop spoke about how John Paul II has influenced the celebration of Christmas in the Holy See. He notes that the Pope introduced the annual Christmas tree and Nativity scene into St. Peter’s Square.
“The Holy Father wanted to have the Christmas crib there so that families could come with their children and explain the story of the Nativity to them,” he says. “Each year a new type of Christmas Crib scene is constructed in St. Peter’s, unveiled on Christmas Eve and is left until February 2, the feast of the presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple.”
As the Crib serves as a powerful reminder of the season’s meaning, it certainly impacted the life of this Vatican official who considers Christmas as the anniversary of his priestly vocation.
“It was Christmas Day in my senior year of high school. I went back to my parish church after Christmas dinner and I knelt in front of the Crib and the church was otherwise completely empty at that time.
“I said, ‘Dear Lord, you’ve given me everything I have — my life, my family, my faith. You’ve been so good to me and I’d like to give it all back to you.'”
Fifty years later, Archbishop Foley has a chance, along with others from the Roman Curia and visitors to Rome, to contemplate the celebration in St. Peter’s Square, not just in front of the Crib but also by the enormous Christmas tree.
According to Archbishop Foley, the Holy Father also has his own, smaller tree erected in his private apartment, decorated with ornaments from his homeland. The Pope makes a point of celebrating Christmas with his “family,” according the archbishop.
“On Christmas Day, the Holy Father usually invites his Polish bishop friends who are here in Rome to have a traditional Christmas dinner with him so that he can relax on Christmas Day after a very taxing program in which he would have had the Christmas Midnight Mass and then with his greetings in about 60 languages, together with the Christmas message.”
The latter, also known as the message “urbi et orbi,” is a key ingredient of Christmas Day at the Vatican.
“The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and he’s also the universal pastor of the Church,” the archbishop explained. “So several times a year, specifically at Christmas and Easter, he gives a special blessing to the people of his diocese, ‘urbi,’ and to the people of the world, ‘orbi,’ his flock everywhere.
“This involves the invocation of all the saints, the blessing of God, and it carries with it a plenary indulgence which we mean as a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.” The blessing is valid even when received via radio or television.
Through such media, Archbishop Foley says, a multitude of countries “are able to be united with the Holy Father on Christmas Day in honoring God and in thanking God for having sent his Son, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to be born in a stable and ordered to show us how to live and ultimately how to die for our sins and make it possible for us to live forever.”
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While many people turn to Internet, television or the local mall for the perfect Christmas gift. Some come to Rome.
This was the case with one group of parishioners from St. Joseph’s Church, of Leicester, England, whom I met on their recent visit.
The lure of Rome’s Catholic stores, filled with every possible statuette, rosary and holy card, was enough to bring them from England.
Their leader, Rosminian Father John Daley, told me: “What better place than the heart of Christendom to come upon those items that have a more spiritual flavor to them?”
Yet the articles weren’t just for the parishioners and those on their gift list.
The group’s latest project is to put together a “small, wholesale repository … which allow us to supply our people and other neighboring parishes,” said Father Daley.
Having just attended the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, which focused on the topic of getting parishes active, I was curious to find an example of one that embodies just how to be active. Father Daley’s parish group seemed to fit the bill.
The Watermead Apostolate, as the group is called, describes itself as a simple community responding to its call to ministry by providing a well-stocked parish store, a range of especially designed greeting and prayer cards, and even its own art and music. It also taps whatever talents its members bring to the apostolate.
“It all started very simply about 12 years ago,” recalled Father Daley, whose group comes from the Diocese of Nottingham. “One day a parishioner composed a hymn for one of the parish’s celebrations. I put it forward to be published which just led to further music and hymn-writing for our church’s ministry.”
That parishioner was Alison Kennedy. She links a lot of the community’s success to having good support from its priests and parish council.
Watermead’s mission “wouldn’t have happened without Father John and is reliant on his support like a father … the head of the family,” she said.
Kennedy said the group decided to come to Rome because many of the shops back home don’t carry truly religious items.
“No matter where you look, there’s no real Christian representation in the local shops anymore,” she said. “We are now the only one’s offering Christ-centered gifts and cards for Christmas it seems.”
Watermead’s work reaches beyond its own community too. It shares its profits with Church missions. Father Daley explained how its organization “is now a limited company — the profits covenanted to Africa, India and South America.”
Father explains that the parish apostolate is all about “encouraging our people to develop their God-given talents. … Any parish can do it. Cooperation and encouragement are the key factors.”
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“Presepi” on Parade
For this traditional Italian culture, in which the very concept of the crib, or “presepe,” was born with Francis of Assisi, to turn away from the Nativity scene is almost unnatural.
The Crib has played a fundamental role in their Christmas ever since then, and next to Mass and a good meal with the family, it has been a most appreciated aspect of the season.
So it’s no surprise that Italians nationwide are reacting to recent secularist attempts to ban the Christmas crèches by exhibiting their “best Nativity scenes.”
After visiting Rome’s own showcase, it seemed clear that the Crib is not going to disappear anytime soon.
One of the artists present at the “100 Presepi” exhibition in Piazza del Popolo, Gianni Mariani, expl
ained to me how each area tries to capture their unique geographical distinctions and historical periods in their work.
Walking me through the stunning display, he explained how “each piece has to maintain that ability to capture the essence of the place they were made.”
“There are always those areas which tend to continue repeating styles, but there are those who look to be innovative and thus new styles are born,” he said. “Personal ethnicity can be seen from the 1950s.
“A Roman crib has been identified by its style based in the 1700s, where Rome was going through a renewal with a more Palestinian nature to it.
“Those of the countryside or Naples include figurines typical to their region such as farmers, musicians or gypsies. These are set in scaled-down replicas of their villages.”
Mariani said each artist is “always refining their techniques which are then achieved with diverse material and dimensions. But it’s another thing again when the special-effects elements are added.”
Mariani insists that it is more than artistic passion that leads one to become a professional Crib maker. “Faith is a prevalent factor and that religious element has to remain prevalent; otherwise it would be empty — just a secular piece of work lost in another sector of society.”
He said that the Crib has always had an evangelical quality that artists must maintain. “Ever since the first Nativity scene traveled from Assisi to Naples, and that design moved to Spain via trade, then went, via missionaries, to America, it has upheld its mission and will continue to do so.”
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Catherine Smibert can be reached at email@example.com.