St. Peter’s Square is a must-visit for anyone on their way to Rome—the gigantic plaza is a place for the faithful to congregate in the hopes of a glimpse of the Pope. At this time of year, it gets even more festive with a lavish nativity scene and Christmas tree worthy of Catholicism’s capital. But this year, there’s more to the scene than ornaments and holy figures, reports Carol Glatz for the Catholic News Service—this year’s nativity scene may increase awareness of Europe’s growing refugee crisis.
At first blush, the nativity scene, which is 55 feet wide and features 17 figures, seems dressed in traditional Maltese attire, is traditional enough. Like other nativity scenes, it features shepherds, angels, wise men and Jesus’ family observing the newborn child in a manger. But the créche, which was donated by the government and archdiocese of Malta, also features traditional Maltese elements with a message.
Manwel Grech, a Maltese artist, is the man behind the nativity scene with a message. In it, he incorporates a spire from the St. Benedict Basilica, a church in Norcia, Italy, that was reduced to rubble when an earthquake ravaged the town on October 31. The area, which already sustained a dramatic earthquake earlier in 2016, has been the epicenter of an intensive search for the artwork and cultural relics the quake damaged or destroyed. Pope Francis, in turn, announced that offerings of money left at the nativity scene will be used to rebuild the oratory of the damaged church, according to the Associated Press.
The next element of import is something you might not associate with a scene that purportedly took place somewhere in Bethlehem: a Maltese boat. The boat is a traditional Maltese fishing boat called a luzzu. The sturdy, brightly colored boats date back to the ones used in ancient times, but they have modern significance, too. That’s because of the refugee crisis that’s been buffeting Europe with on-the-move migrants who seek to escape their plights in places like Malta.
As Herman Grech reports for The Times of Malta, the first boats bringing refugees to the islands arrived in 2002. Since then, thousands of migrants have flooded to the island, which has in turn been inundated by the logistical and political challenge of caring for the refugees. Multiple shipwrecks have also occurred near the island, including one in which at least 300 migrants died after their ship was rammed by human traffickers.
The boat “recalls the sad and tragic situation of migrants on boats headed for Italy,” said the Pope in an address thanking the people of Malta and the Italian region that donated the Christmas tree also displayed at the site. He drew parallels between Jesus, who was born in a stable while his parents were on the move, and the migrants, inviting people to receive and give “a message of fraternity, sharing, welcome, and solidarity.”
That message is a pungent one for Italians, many of whom have turned against the migrants in their midst. Racist incidents and murders have been reported throughout Italy, and the country has begun to raise a ruckus in the European Union after becoming the most popular migrant destination this year.
This isn’t the first time Pope Francis has weighed in on the refugee crisis: Earlier this year, for example, he not only visited a refugee camp in Greece, but took 12 refugees back to the Vatican with him. Perhaps his message will help stave off the backlash many countries have experienced in the face of unprecedented immigration pressures—or maybe the créche will turn out to be just another pretty Christmas tradition.