Vatican Nativity scene will reflect southern Italy cave setting

Bishop Giuseppe Sciacca Credit Alan Holdren CNA CNA500x320 Vatican Catholic News 12 13 12 Bishop Giuseppe Sciacca at a Dec. 13, 2012 press conference about the Vatican's Nativity scene. / Alan Holdren-CNA.

This Christmas season visitors to St. Peter's Square will get a chance to see a Nativity scene that is set amid a famous city of ancient cave dwellings from southern Italy.

"The Nativity Scene reminds us of what is important about the mystery of Christmas," Bishop Giuseppe Sciacca, Secretary General of the Governorate of Vatican City State, told CNA on Dec. 13.

"It's not about a fact that took place in the past and was sealed in time and space," he explained. "The mystery of Christmas strongly represents the real, living presence of Christ and his Church and spirit."

"That mystery of Christmas is represented and renewed every time the Church, in the Eucharistic celebration in the Sacramental sign, celebrates Christmas," he said.

At a Dec. 13 press conference, Vatican officials announced that this year's Nativity scene would be donated by southern Italy's Basilicata region. This is the first year that the annual crèche is being donated, which will result in significant savings for the Vatican, they said.

The depiction of Christ's birth will be set in the "Sassi di Matera," ancient stone cave dwellings in the Basilicata area.

The city of Matera, where the cave dwellings are located, is a U.N. World Heritage site. The caves have made the area famous throughout the world, and they even served as a filming location for Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ."

Construction of the set is already underway and expected to be completed by Christmas Eve.

The tradition of building a Nativity scene at the Vatican was started in 1982 by Pope John Paul II. Each year, the display includes similar elements, but it often features a different theme.

Past themes have included an emphasis on events in the life of the Virgin Mary and Filipino figures to recognize 60 years of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the Holy See.

The display this year will include more than 100 terracotta statues of varying height, depicted in an intricate system of scenery and lighting on a raised platform.

The crèche is being designed by Italian artist Francesco Artese, whose previous work – including other acclaimed nativity scenes – has been exhibited around the world. Artese was born in Matera in 1957.

The Basilicata regional government was able to fundraise for most of the money to complete the project, which will cover more than 1,600 square feet and feature statutes of St. Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, shepherds, the three wise men and animals, among others.

The Vatican's 70-foot Christmas tree, which was donated by the Molise region of Italy, stands next to the manger scene and was lit during a ceremony at sundown on Dec. 14.

The manger will be unveiled on Christmas Eve, and Pope Benedict will celebrate the Christmas vigil Mass at 10:00 p.m. inside St. Peter's Basilica.

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