VATICAN CITY –– Oil giants such as Total and Shell and other companies operating in southern Italy’s petroleum-rich Basilicata region footed the expenses for this year’s Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.
The regional government offered to donate to the Vatican a 1,615-square-foot artistic representation of Christ’s birth, resulting in “very significant savings” for the Holy See, Bishop Giuseppe Sciacca, secretary-general of the Vatican governor’s office, said during a news conference Dec. 13.
Basilicata officials launched a fundraising appeal to the surrounding business community, which ended up covering “95 percent to 100 percent” of the project’s expenses, said Vito De Filippo, president of the Basilicata region.
The total cost was about $117,580 and included expenses such as the lighting system, transport costs, insurance coverage and “food and lodging” for the artist, Francesco Artese.
The Vatican was to spend about $28,460 in personnel and labor costs in assembling the scene, which will place Jesus, Mary and Joseph in an artistic re-creation of the picturesque rocky setting of the ancient cave city of Matera, where “sassi” –– stone houses carved into caves –– are located. The scene was to be unveiled Dec. 24.
Matera is a U.N. World Heritage site.
This was the first time the Vatican used a donated scene in the main square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Since 1982, when a creche was first erected in the square at the request of Blessed John Paul II, the Vatican covered the costs of creating and building a different scene each year while using the same 19th-century core figures of the Holy Family and the Magi. It often accepted donated figures to add to the main pieces.
Bishop Sciacca said last year’s Nativity scene cost the Vatican about $235,160, resulting in a “notable” savings this year of about $206,430.
In a response to questions from journalists, the bishop said accepting a significantly cheaper alternative to a Vatican-built scene was in no way connected to the VatiLeaks fallout, but that it was just “good sense” to take advantage of the offer and in order to cut costs.
The VatiLeaks scandal began in January with the publication of letters written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano when he was secretary-general of the governor’s office and Bishop Sciacca’s predecessor.
The archbishop, who now is apostolic nuncio to the United States, warned of corruption, “abuse of power long rooted in the various departments” of the governorate and a lack of transparency in awarding Vatican contracts, especially by the technical services department, which is in charge of the Nativity scene.
In a letter to Pope Benedict XVI dated April 4, 2011, Archbishop Vigano complained that contracted costs were “at least double those charged outside the Vatican,” adding as examples the total expenses of $718,800 in 2009 and $392,000 in 2010 for the creche in St. Peter’s Square.
Bishop Sciacca said he “would love other offers” of a donated scene in the future and has already received word from a potential private donor for next year.
This year’s scene will be decorated with more than 100 terracotta figures and detailed scenery showing the simple and hardworking life of farmers and artisans. The scene will reproduce Matera’s cliff-clinging churches, buildings, streets and grottos carved out of the mountainside.
Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican museums, said the Nativity scene will have lots of animals and “be full of chickens and sheep” and donkeys.
The presence of people and animals gathered together around the baby Jesus teaches people the ideal of “fraternity that unites all living creatures on Earth,” he said.
Although it won’t happen in St. Peter’s Square, Paolucci said he supported the frequent practice in Italy of placing well-known contemporary figures, like soccer stars and politicians, in the grotto with Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
“Why shouldn’t they be there? The Lord was born for everyone even (former Italian Prime Minister Silvio) Berlusconi and (U.S. President Barack) Obama,” he added.