|ROME, 9 DEC. 2008 (ZENIT) Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: Please give me the true teaching of the magisterium in regards to the
use of statues and Christmas cribs in church or in chapels. Is it true
that they may not be used in church, but only in the foyer or in
A.W., Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
A: There is not a great deal of what could be deemed "magisterium" on
the Christmas crib. Many Church traditions are customary and are not
manifested in official norms.
There are, however, some official guidelines that manifest Church
thinking on this subject. On the universal level the Directory on
Popular Piety has some pertinent indications which emphasize its
importance in the family and indirectly show that placing the crib in
the church is perfectly acceptable.
Thus, No. 104 states:
As is well known, in addition to the representations of the crib found
in churches since antiquity, the custom of building cribs in the home
was widely promoted from the thirteenth century, influenced undoubtedly
by St. Francis of Assisi's crib in Greccio. Their preparation, in which
children play a significant role, is an occasion for the members of the
family to come into contact with the mystery of Christmas, as they
gather for a moment of prayer or to read the biblical accounts of the
This is corroborated by No. 111:
"At Midnight Mass, an event of major liturgical significance and of
strong resonance in popular piety, the following could be given
at the end of Mass, the faithful could be invited to kiss the image of
the Child Jesus, which is then placed in a crib erected in the church or
From this document we can glean that not only is there no rule against
placing the Nativity scene inside a church, but that it is a
long-standing custom to do so.
Although paintings, mosaics and relievos have depicted the Nativity from
ancient times, it is possible that one of the earliest representations
of a crib was a chapel built by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) as a
representation of the cave of Bethlehem. This tiny chapel, now
completely lost, was adjunct to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, whose
construction was initiated by the same Pope. The relics believed to be
of the original manger were first placed in this chapel in the seventh
century and are now found below the basilica's main altar.
Although they have no legal authority outside of the United States, the
U.S. bishops' conference guidelines on church buildings "Built of Living
Stones" makes some sensible suggestions on this topic that can be
applied everywhere. To wit:
"124. Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides
the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true
nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in
themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and
other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical
points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not
walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways
in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear.
"128. Objects such as the Advent wreath, the Christmas crib, and other
traditional seasonal appointments proportioned to the size of the space
and to the other furnishings can enhance the prayer and understanding of
the parish community."
Other bishops' conferences might have issued similar guidelines which
should always be taken into account.
In setting up the crèche, therefore, care must be taken to locate it in
such a manner that it does not impede the altar or produce an obstacle
to movements, while at the same time making it easily accessible for
* * *
Follow-up: Christmas Cribs in Church [12-23-2008]
In response to our piece on the placement of the Christmas crib (Dec.
9), several readers mentioned a norm in the Book of Blessings. One
"The Book of Blessings (1544), while allowing for the placement of
the manger in the church, forbids its placement in the presbyterium.
From my understanding this might not prohibit its placement in the
sanctuary (such as on a side altar no longer used) but would not permit
the crèche to be placed around or in front of the altar, chair, ambo or
tabernacle. Would this be your understanding also?"
I would first of all point out that the rite of blessing a manger in
church, and hence the accompanying rubric, is found in the
English-language Book of Blessings but not the original Latin.
Therefore, this norm is not universally applicable.
All the same, it is a sensible norm, and I think the interpretation
offered by our reader is valid. It is best to keep the crib separate
from the immediate sanctuary area so as to make it easier for private
devotion and avoid possible occasion of distraction during Mass.
I do not believe that this norm would exclude the custom of placing
an image of the infant Jesus in the sanctuary area. This custom is quite
common in many places, including St. Peter's Basilica where an image of
the Infant is customarily placed on a stand located at ground level in
front of the high altar. Besides this image, there is also a fully
populated Nativity scene in another part of the basilica and the huge
display in the square outside.
Speaking about the relative authority of documents, a reader
commented: "In your recent response on cribs in church, you stated that
'Although they have no legal authority outside of the United States, the
U.S. bishops' conference guidelines on church buildings Built of
Living Stones makes some sensible suggestions on this topic that can
be applied everywhere.' This implies these guidelines have legal
authority in the United States, but this is not the case. My
understanding is that documents similar to this one were one reason the
Holy See recently placed new restrictions on what bishops' conferences
can publish without proper approvals."
I believe that our correspondent is confusing this document with its
predecessor Environment and Art. The earlier document,
questionable on many points, had been issued by a committee of the
bishops' conference and had never been approved by the full body of
bishops. In spite of this, some liturgical experts endowed it with an
authority bordering on divine revelation.
On the contrary, the year 2000 document Built of Living Stones
was expressly issued to replace the earlier document with something more
authoritative. It was discussed and approved by the entire bishops'
conference and reflects and incorporates many universal norms.
Because they are guidelines, and not particular law, this document
did not require specific approval from the Holy See. Its norms, however,
while lacking the legal weight that comes with legislation, are much
more than a series of helpful suggestions that can be taken up or left
aside according to taste.
The document allows for exceptions in particular circumstances. But
because this class of document is backed by the bishops, their
indications should generally be observed and applied in the spirit of
obedience and in virtue of "sensus Ecclesiae," which desires to do all
things as the Church desires to do them.