Away in a manger: Pope makes secret stop at Nativity scene's birthplace

Pope Francis made a surprise visit to the place where his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, created the world's first Nativity scene.

"He wanted to visit the sanctuary and places where St. Francis, on Christmas Eve in 1223, represented the first living Nativity in history," Bishop Domenico Pompili of Rieti told ANSA, the Italian news agency.

Advertisement

The pope had nothing listed on his official schedule, and so he used the free day to visit the Franciscan shrine in Greccio, a town 60 miles northeast of Rome and 56 miles south of Assisi.

The bishop said he and the shrine's prior were the only people informed a few days ahead of time of the pope's plans to make the Jan. 4 visit.

As the pope arrived in a blue Ford Focus accompanied by two plainclothes security guards, the shrine's guardian said he was caught completely off guard. "I didn't even have my habit on and I quickly went to the refectory to put it on. Then I opened the gate for the pope," Franciscan Father Alfredo Silvestri told the Italian bishops' TV2000.

The pope also made an unannounced stop at a local youth meeting organized by the diocese. Amid loud cheers and chants of "Francesco," some participants were moved to tears.

The pope told the some 150 young people that their bishop had told him it would be a good idea to pray at Greccio during the Christmas season. "So I came to pray. But I won't say what white lie he used to lure me here," the pope joked. 

In impromptu remarks, the pope told them to reflect on two important signs associated with Christ's birth: the star of Bethlehem and the baby in a manger.

"The sky is full of stars, isn't it? But there is one that is special," the star that inspired the Three Wise Men to leave everything behind and begin a journey into the unknown, he said.

The pope asked the young people to be on the lookout in their own lives for a "special star that calls us to do something greater, to strike out on a journey, to make a decision." 

"We have to ask for this grace of discovering 'the star' that God today wants to show me because that star will lead me to Jesus," he said.

The second sign, which the angels tell the shepherds about, is a baby born in a manger, he said.

This shows, the pope said, how "God lowered himself, obliterated himself to be like us, to walk before us, but with smallness, that is, you can say, humility, which goes against pride, self-importance, arrogance."

The pope asked them to think about whether their own lives were "meek, humble, (one) that doesn't turn up its nose, that isn't full of pride."

The Three Wise Men were very smart "because they let themselves be led by the star. All the splendor of Herod's huge palace" did not fool them because they were able to sense right away that the promised king they were looking for was not there, the pope said.

He told the young people he hoped their lives would always be guided by these two signs -- two gifts from God. He asked they always have that star that will guide them and "the humility to rediscover Jesus in the little ones, the humble, the poor, in those who are a cast off by society and from our own life."

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla clash with military police in the Policarpo Paz Garcia neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Jan. 20, 2018. Following a disputed election marred by irregularities, incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez was declared the victor and will be inaugurated on Jan. 27. The opposition does not recognize Hernandez's victory and are protesting against the result. (AP Photo/Fernando Antonio)
“You will see many protests during his mandate...because Honduras hasn’t fixed its age-old problems of inequality, exclusion, poor educational and health system, corruption and impunity.”
Melissa VidaJanuary 23, 2018
I want to be able to serve the state better. I want to be able to serve more of the state.
Nathan SchneiderJanuary 23, 2018
Formed in 2011, The Oh Hellos' Christianity is one of their foundational inspirations, evident in lines like "the only God I should have loved."
Colleen DulleJanuary 23, 2018
People gather at a June 14 candlelight vigil in Manila, Philippines, in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Philippine Catholic bishops called for vigilance against bullying, ostracism and harassment of gay people in the wake of the incident in which police said a lone gunman killed 49 people early June 12 at the club. (CNS photo/Mark R. Cristino, EPA)
“We are losing three generations of people, and we need to hear why,” said Bishop Mark O’Connell.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 23, 2018