- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2020

American Catholics are critiquing the creche the Vatican has put on display in St. Peter’s Square, with one commentator comparing the globular ceramics diorama to the cantina scene from “Star Wars.”

“A shocking portrayal,” Duncan Stroik, a professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, said in email to The Washington Times. “Not particularly evocative of the Incarnation, which much of the world celebrates this month.”

The Nativity unveiled by the Vatican last week evokes an out-of-this-world vibe, with an oval-headed Joseph, a spaceman as one of the Wise Men, an extraterrestrial Archangel Gabriel and bulky farm animals. It has mystified art critics, laypersons and some clergy alike.

“It is truly ugly. How very sad,” Deacon Keith Fournier of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, tweeted. “The Catholic Church has such beautiful art. This increasingly ugly world is hungering for beauty. Why would this be chosen?”

A host on Relevant Radio, a Catholic network, called the display “unusually modernistic.” Art historian Elizabeth Lev in America Magazine, a Jesuit publication, noted the “universal outpouring of mockery.” And The New York Post said “if it were a Broadway play, it probably would have closed on opening night.”

Seemingly on the defensive, an article posted this week to the Vatican’s official news website says the 2020 “Christmas crib” is said to hold “cultural heritage not immediately visible to the eye.” The 52-piece ceramic display was made in the style that is typical of Castelli, Italy, which is known internationally for its pottery, the article states. Students and teachers assembled the set over 10 years, from 1965 to 1975.

Regarding the “spaceman,” the Vatican says Pope Francis wrote as recently as a year ago that it is “customary” to add symbolic figures to a Nativity scene.

Not all are convinced.

Radio host Lino Rulli, on his “The Catholic Guy Show” on SiriusXM, jokingly compared the display to Darth Vader, adding that the Nativity looks like it had been cast with characters from the cantina scene in “Star Wars.”

He told The Times that the ensuing kerfuffle over the Nativity scene reveals a “snapshot” of a contemporary Roman Catholic Church that, thanks to social media, is hearing increasingly from its people in the pews.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Mr. Rulli said. “But I think it’s a reflection of more Catholics saying, ‘Hey, it’s my church, too, and I also get to say when I’m disapproving and we are going in a bad direction.’”

Other American Catholics are looking for other ways to explain this year’s peculiar crib.

Kevin Jones, manager of the bookstore at the Catholic Information Center in downtown Washington, said a variety of crche — from handmade Guatemalan sets to mass-produced displays — fly off the shelves. This year’s Vatican display meets the current pandemic-ridden moment, he said.

“In a year when our children have been bereft of the ability to encounter not just other children but also other human beings it’s probably kind of fitting,” Mr. Jones said. “Maybe it’s not the Vatican’s job to put something tender [in St. Peter’s] right now.”

He also noted the space-alien allusions reminded him of the book “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial,” a theological rumination by the astronomers at the Vatican Observatory.

The first Nativity display legendarily was set up by Saint Francis of Assisi, who had used the scene as a tool for evangelization.

Vatican journalists say the crowds (while smaller than usual during the pandemic in Vatican City) have grown during Advent to see the ceramic crche, which will be on display through early January.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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