VATICAN CITY — On Monday, Pope Francis made a surprise visit to the Italian town of Greccio, where St. Francis built the first crèche to honor Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Pope Francis travelled by car to the hill town of Greccio (Rieti), located to the north of Rome, for what the Vatican called a time of “personal prayer.”
His visit comes just two days before the Vatican and Italy celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany, when the Church commemorates the manifestation of Christ to the Magi (i.e., to the Gentiles).
“I thank the Lord for this joy and I ask him to bless the Church, the bishop of Rieti, the friars, the faithful and to help everyone discover the star and seek the Child,” Pope Francis wrote in his own hand, in the shrine’s book of signatures, according to Vatican Insider.
In December 1223, St. Francis built the first nativity scene in Greccio, using local animals and a carved image of the Christ Child in a manger to recreate the events of the Lord’s birth.
The tradition of the crèche continues in the same hillside cave, which is now a popular local Franciscan shrine. Visitors to the crèche can also see the monastic cell in the nearby friary where St. Francis slept.
According to the Vatican, during the pope’s visit on Monday, he spent a few moments in silent prayer at the shrine, visited the adjacent church and had lunch with the local bishop of Rieti, Domenico Pompili, the only person who knew about the papal visit in advance.
The pope also greeted a group of some 70 young people, who were taking part in a diocesan “Greccio Youth 2016” meeting.
After the visit to the shrine made famous by the Poverello, Pope Francis returned to the Vatican in “his” Ford Focus.
Pope St. John Paul II visited Greccio 33 years ago, on January 2, 1983, to commemorate the octave centenary of the birth of St. Francis of Assisi.
During his visit, he highlighted Greccio’s message for men today, saying:
Greccio, the “Franciscan Bethlehem,’ addresses to modern man — who is thrown adventurously into space yet also surrounded by a disquieting emptiness of values and certainty — a message of salvation and peace: The Incarnate Word, the divine Child wants to reach and convert the hearts of this generation, inviting them to experience an infinite love that has even taken on our mortal flesh in order to be a source of forgiveness and new life.
Pope St. John Paul II continued:
St. Francis also favored the inhabitants of Greccio because of their poverty and simplicity, and he said: “In no big city have I seen so many conversions as in this little hill town of Greccio.” This is a true witness also for the present and which concerns the exercise of the virtues of frugality and detachment in order to find an authentic lordship over things, and even more to be close — in an affluent and therefore often unjust society — to those who suffer the greatest poverty. Thus do fraternity and a sense of universal solidarity come alive again, which are so much a part of Franciscan spirituality, and so necessary for humanity to rediscover, in authentic freedom, the ability to raise, together with the whole created world, a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.