Thousands of young people huddled under umbrellas in St. Peter’s Square last Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, held up figures of Baby Jesus in the manger for Pope Francis’ blessing.
They were following an Italian tradition of bringing the figurines to St. Peter’s on Gaudete Sunday, so the pope can bless them before they are placed in family Nativity scenes on Christmas Eve.
This tradition has been told and illustrated through a delightful book by Amy Welborn, illustrated by Ann Engelhart, released this year by Franciscan Media.
ZENIT spoke with Welborn and Engelhart about “Bambinelli Sunday: A Christmas Blessing.”
ZENIT: Tell us about your inspiration for the book.
Engelhart: After reading Pope Benedict’s beautiful prayer several years ago, I discovered the Roman tradition of bringing the figure of the Christ Child — the “Bambinelli” — to St. Peter’s Square on Gaudete Sunday for the pope’s Angelus blessing. I imagined that it must be a real adventure for a child to arrive in St. Peter’s Square on such a festive day. I have always admired the artistry of Italian presepi and wanted to bring the traditions of the Angelus Blessing and the Neapolitan craft together in a picture book for children, which could help place the proper focus on Christmas.
Welborn: We dedicated the book to Benedict XVI, first of all, because it was through his engagement with this tradition that we first learned of it. We thought his prayer from 2008 was quite lovely and a succinct expression of what this feast of Christmas is all about: In the Incarnation, Jesus enters into the human family. When we bring this blessed Infant Jesus into our home, we are giving concrete expression to that reality.
Secondly, Ann and I have always been struck by Benedict XVI’s deep pastoral nature, which was clear when one listened to him teach. He has the gift of being able to express deep truths in ways that are accessible, but don’t lose any of that depth. His dialogues with children and young people are really masterful in this regard. Absolutely understandable and down to earth, respectful of both the listener’s level of understanding and capacity for growth. We both benefited so much from this very pastoral approach, and wanted in some way to thank him for it.
Engelhart: I had the opportunity to visit the San Gregorio Armeno, the famous street in Naples, where most of the presepi figures come from and the setting for the beginning of our story. I met with the artisans who showed me how they create them. They sculpt and paint the terra cotta figures and dress them in finely crafted clothing. They use simple fabrics for the Holy Family and luscious silks and brocades for the Kings, angels, and endless villagers who populate the meticulously crafted scenes with perfectly proportioned architectural elements and landscapes.
Welborn: The story was Ann’s idea, but I agreed with her that this would be a wonderful story. Children always enjoy learning about different Christmas-related traditions from around the world. It’s a wonderful way to engage with the truth that in all of this variety, there is great unity in the Jesus who comes for the whole world.
ZENIT: What moves you to use your talents for Catholic books, such as this one, or the one about Benedict XVI and First Communion?
Engelhart: I was first inspired by Benedict XVI’s appreciation for art and beauty in the service of evangelization. Truthfully, as a professional artist and mother, it hadn’t occurred to me to use my talents to create Catholic children’s books until my faith matured during his pontificate, so I will always be grateful to the Pope Emeritus for his encouragement of artists. As Catholics, we have something extraordinary to share with others, and we must use our individual gifts to find a way to bring people to Christ.
ZENIT: What do you hope children and their families can discover from this book?
Engelhart: I hope that children and families will learn, like little Alessandro in the book, that God loves us in spite of our weaknesses. In addition, they should be encouraged to use their talents to preserve our beautiful Catholic traditions that are such delightful expressions of faith. Finally, Amy and I want to focus children on the nativity of Christ, the true reason for our joy at Christmas.