Black Friday at the Vatican...
The lessons of the upcoming Advent season and growing impatience with Pope Francis
Christmas tree being put up in St. Peter's Square. (Photo courtesy Vatican News)
The priests from the United States who work in the Roman Curia had not even gathered yet for their big Thanksgiving Dinner on Thursday evening at the Villa Stritch when the Vatican’s annual Christmas tree was already up in St. Peter’s Square.
In fact, the seminarians at the North American College over on the Janiculum Hill and the student-priests at the Casa Santa Maria down by the Trevi Fountain were still at cocktail hour ahead of their mid-day turkey and trimmings when workmen had just finished anchoring the 23-meter-high spruce (that’s a little over 75 feet) next to the much taller obelisk... and a huge pile of sand.
The tree is a gift from the Region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in northeast Italy. The sand is from the Dolomite Mountains.
It was dumped in the square last Saturday and for the past several days an international team of four sculptors have been busy on a three-week-long project of transforming that yellowish-brown mound, now covered by a large canopy, into a manger scene.
The Vatican identified the artists and their nationalities as Richard Varano (USA), Ilya Filimontsev (Russia), Susanne Ruseler (Netherlands) and Rodovan Ziuny (Czech Republic).
Their “Sand Nativity,” which is projected to be 16 meters long and 5 meters high, is being sponsored and financed by the Patriarchate of Venice.
Leapfrogging Advent and rushing towards Christmas
Both the tree and the crèche are scheduled to be unveiled in a public ceremony on the afternoon of Dec. 7, just a day before what was once upon a time the traditional start of pre-Christmas holiday season in Rome.
Folks in the Eternal City and, indeed, most of the Italian peninsula, never used to start Christmas decorating (and shopping) -- at least in earnest -- until the Dec. 8 Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
One didn’t see many Christmas trees in Italy, either, except in the northern regions closer to the Alps. The presepe (manger scene) was the main symbol of the season.
But that has changed over the past couple of decades as the influence of marketing, advertising and consumerism has been imported to (or imposed upon) the Bel Paese from places like the United States (though the Chinese are quickly gobbling up that business).
Stores and shops here have even begun to offer Black Friday deals, which is somewhat bewildering to many Italians.
So, it was probably symbolic that the Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Squares should have been hoisted into place before most people throughout the United States, home of these non-religious holidays and habits, had even put their Thanksgiving Day turkey in the oven.
For a Church that has long relied on spreading the faith through its effective use of poignant signs and symbols, this was not the most encouraging image.
What does it say about a Church that is still more than a week away from the beginning of Advent (Dec. 2) and is already laying out the Christmas decorations?
It is a Church that was defeated long ago by secularists and consumerists -- even those who sit in its pews -- in the struggle to preserve the true meaning and spirit of Advent, the “season of waiting.”
The age of instant gratification, fast food and movies (and everything else) “on demand” has all but stripped people of their capacity and will to wait. It has not spared Catholics, either.
Catholic impatience and the inability to wait
But we are not just talking about jumpstarting Christmas. Not in the least.
Think one moment of the great impatience many Catholics (perhaps even we ourselves) have shown towards Pope Francis for being much too slow to reform the Vatican bureaucracy and appoint better bishops; far too slow to promote women to decision-making posts and, slower still (if that is even possible) to “fix” the clergy sex abuse crisis and discipline the people who tried to cover it up.
That Catholic impatience was never more visible than a couple of weeks ago when the U.S. bishops gathered for their general assembly in Baltimore.
People in the vast North American country were outraged that the Vatican had ordered their Church leaders to hold off voting on several new norms and protocols regarding their own handling of abuse cases and abusive priests.
The bishops debated them all the same and it soon became clear by their squabbling and obvious lack of consensus that the Vatican was wise to postpone the votes.
Waiting, delaying, postponing does not translate into doing nothing. In the true spirit and meaning of Advent there is also the essential element of preparing.
But for believers, preparation is truly fruitful and in tune with the Holy Spirit only in the measure that is done through prayer, contemplation and discernment.
In just over a week’s time we will be starting Advent, our preparation for the great feast of the Birth of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps this year we all need to rediscover and try to live a bit more consciously the real purpose of this liturgical season as a time of longing, hoping, waiting, preparing and praying.
And may it be a time we learn to be more patient with ourselves and with others. And perhaps it will help us be a bit more patient with Pope Francis, too, and remember that he is neither Santa Claus nor our Savior.