Born in the midst of daily life

The Roman basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian tends to elude the casual tourist and the hurried pilgrim, although it’s right off the Via dei Fori Imperiali between Trajan’s column and the Coliseum. A visit at any time is worthwhile, as the apse mosaics are among the most spectacular in Rome—sixth and seventh century work that somehow anticipates 20th century art deco. Sts. Cosmas and Damian is particularly striking during Advent and Christmastide, though, because it’s also home to one of the world’s most colossal crèches.

Six yards long, four yards high, and three and a half yards deep, the nativity scene is Neapolitan in inspiration and execution, and dates from the 18th century. Buildings and bridges are made of cork; human and animal figures are carved wood or ceramic. In addition to Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, the crèche includes the three kings (with five camels and three horses), 29 angels of various choirs, and some 75 men and women—among them, a chestnut vender, a fruiterer, a miller, a man harvesting grapes, a piper, an innkeeper, a fisherman, a butcher, a hunter, a soldier, and a blind man, plus the usual array of shepherds. Two people are sleeping and one family is caring for another newborn child. The animal kingdom is represented by five cows, one calf, two donkeys, a mule, a dog, two goats, and 23 sheep, in addition to lambs, doves, birds in their nests, and hens with newly-hatched chicks.

Il Monumentale Presepio Napoletano is more than just a display grander than anything on New York’s Fifth Avenue, however. Its composition makes an important, if subtle, theological point, in that the cave of the Nativity is not in the center of the scene. The point? This is not a Redeemer who comes as we might expect a Redeemer to come, with trumpets blaring and everything pointing to the expected Messiah. No, this Redeemer comes into the world in the midst of everyday life, the life he will transform by the witness and sacrifice of his own life.

Pope St. Leo the Great, in a reading prescribed for the Liturgy of the Hours on Dec. 17, made the same point, a millennium before Neapolitan artists created the Cosmas-and-Damian crèche:

“The divine nature and the nature of a servant were to be united in one person so that the Creator of time might be born in time, and he through whom all things were made might be bought forth in their midst. For unless the new man, being made in the likeness of sinful humanity, had taken on himself the nature of our first parents, unless he had stooped to be one in substance with his mother while sharing the Father’s substance and, being alone free from sin, united our nature to his, the whole human race would still be held captive under the domain of Satan. The Conqueror’s victory would have profited us nothing if the battle had been fought outside our human condition. But through this wonderful blending the mystery of new birth shone upon us, so that through the same Spirit by whom Christ was conceived and brought forth, we, too, might be born again in a spiritual birth; and in consequence, the evangelist declares the faithful to “have been born not of blood, nor of the desire of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

The Redeemer comes, not to fetch us out of ourselves but to unite our humanity to his divinity so that we might be called children of God. This Christmas, the Church in America anticipates at least four years of grave challenge in its living of the Gospel of life. The best response to that challenge is for each of us to become the saints our baptism calls us to be. The Neapolitan crèche at Sts. Cosmas and Damian is a reminder that, for most of us, that sanctity will be achieved amidst the quotidian realities of daily life—which just happens to be where the Redeemer of the world was born.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.