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Vatican Nativity Scene: Austerity Means Donated Crèche

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VATICAN NATIVITY SCENE
Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the nativity crib in Saint Peter's Square after celebrating the Vespers and Te Deum prayers in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on December 31, 2011. (TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty Images

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has happily accepted a donated Nativity scene for St. Peter's Square this Christmas after a previous setup costing (EURO)550,000 ($717,000) was exposed by the embarrassing scandal over leaked Vatican documents.

Monsignor Giuseppe Sciacca, the No. 2 administrator of the Vatican city state, told reporters Thursday that the Vatican was spending just (EURO)21,800 for labor and costs to mount the scene that will be unveiled Dec. 24, hours before Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Midnight Mass. The Italian region of Basilicata – one of Italy's poorest – provided the scene after raising nearly (EURO)90,000 from corporate and other sponsors.

Basilicata regional officials and their sponsors were rewarded with a full-court Vatican press conference Thursday where the head of the Vatican Museums extolled the natural marvels of the southern region, urging tourists to visit, and Sciacca thanked Basilicata for its generosity in tough economic times.

One of the most damaging documents leaked during the so-called Vatileaks scandal was a letter from Sciacca's predecessor complaining that the Vatican was losing millions of euros on corruption and unnecessary expenses such as the 2009 Nativity scene which cost (EURO)550,000.

The predecessor, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, boasted in an April 4, 2011 letter to Benedict that he had trimmed the cost for the 2010 edition to a mere (EURO)300,000. He was subsequently named the Vatican's ambassador to Washington, a move he saw as punishment for having stepped on too many toes in his cost-cutting initiatives.

Sciacca said that by accepting a donated scene this year, the Vatican was saving some (EURO)180,000 over the 2011 edition – and said he already had an offer for 2013.

He denied the Vatican's enthusiasm for donated scenes was a response to the Vigano letters, saying it was merely "good sense" to take something that is donated rather than spend money on it.

"I hope there are other offers," he said.

Vigano's letters were the first of many documents from the pope's desk that were leaked to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi by Benedict's former butler, Paolo Gabriele. The scandal convulsed the Vatican for months, damaged its confidential relations with bishops and led to an unprecedented multi-pronged investigation.

Gabriele was arrested in May, convicted by a Vatican court in October of aggravated theft and is serving an 18-month prison sentence in a room in the Vatican police barracks. An expected papal pardon hasn't yet materialized.

Gabriele told Vatican investigators that he leaked the documents because he wanted to expose the "evil and corruption" in the church in hopes of putting it back on the right track.

Some may be surprised that the Vatican is mounting a full-fledged Nativity scene at all this year given the spate of erroneous media reports that Benedict was canceling the traditional display featuring Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus in a manger surrounded by farm animals.

In his recent book "Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives," Benedict noted that there is no biblical reference to animals in the manger at the time of Jesus' birth – a statement of fact that nevertheless sparked headlines around the world.

Lost in the hype was Benedict's quick conclusion that "No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass."

Vatican officials confirmed that this year's Nativity scene would indeed have ox and ass, as well as hens and sheep typical of southern Italy's famed artisinal Nativity scenes.

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