GRECCIO, Italy – Pope Francis on Sunday hailed Nativity scenes as “simple and admirable” signs of Christian faith and encouraged their placement in workplaces, schools and town squares, as he bolstered a Christmas tradition that has at times triggered bitter legal battles in the United States.
Francis visited a hill town, Greccio, where St. Francis of Assisi, the pontiff's namesake, re-enacted the first creche scene, using living persons instead of statues, likely in 1223, during a return journey from the Holy Land.
In Greccio, in the countryside outside Rome, Francis signed a document, known as an apostolic letter, stressing the importance of creche scenes to popular faith.
“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,” the pope wrote in the letter, which was read aloud to faithful gathered inside a small, stone church in Greccio.
“Great imagination and creativity are always shown in employing the most diverse materials to create small masterpieces of beauty. As children, we learn from our parents and grandparents to carry on this joyful tradition, which encapsulates a wealth of popular piety,'' Francis wrote.
“It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived,'' he wrote in the letter.
Nativity scenes have triggered legal battles in the U.S. when erected on public property over the question of the separation of church and state. Controversies have made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.