Notre Dame’s crèche pilgrimage: Celebrating life’s most intimate moment

Author: Michael O. Garvey

Crèches From Around the World - Thailand Crèches From Around the World – Thailand
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When the University of Notre Dame’s Crèche Pilgrimage begins at 2:30 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 7) in the Eck Visitors Center, those on hand to visit, view and pray at some 30 Nativity scenes on exhibit throughout the campus will be participating in a Christmas tradition as ancient as it is universal.

“Mary is the most ‘inculturated’ person in the Church,” said John Cavadini, professor of theology and director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life (ICL). “Nowhere is this more evident than in the depiction of the Nativity of the Lord as interpreted by people of the various cultures of the world who have embraced this mystery in their heart. In these crèches, we are at once invited into one of the most intimate moments in a family’s life, the welcoming of a newborn child, and in contemplating this scene, we are invited into what Christian faith believes to be the most intimate moment between God and creation, the Incarnation.”

That most intimate moment has been lovingly depicted at least since the fourth century, when Roman Christians began carving it on the stone coffins of loved ones. Then one Christmas Eve 800 years ago, St. Francis of Assisi, while visiting the rural Italian town of Greccio for midnight Mass, built a crib and made it the center of an impromptu tableau with a few villagers standing in for Mary, Joseph and the shepherds and some local livestock to complete the first “crèche,” or Nativity scene.

The devotion that took hold that night in Greccio spread far and wide, and it will be celebrated again at Notre Dame, where these crèches, on loan from the Marian Library at the University of Dayton, may be seen in the Eck Center, McKenna Hall, the Morris Inn, the Main Building and the Hesburgh Library. Crafted in the countries of Asia, Africa, South America and Europe, the crèches, which will remain on exhibit until Jan. 31, offer all who view them a glimpse of the particularity, diversity and beauty native cultures, but something more will be on offer for those on Sunday’s crèche pilgrimage.

St. Francis’ biographer, St. Bonaventure, remembered how, that night at Greccio, “the folk assembled, the wood echoed with their voices, and that august night was made radiant and solemn with many bright lights, and with tuneful and sonorous praises.” On Sunday afternoon at Notre Dame, people will be invited to visit each of the exhibit locations while listening to brief reflections and praying the rosary. The crèche pilgrimage will begin at the Eck Center with a performance of the Notre Dame Glee Club, and when it reaches the Main Building at 4 p.m., participants will hear a performance of the Notre Dame Children’s Choir and an Advent reflection from Notre Dame’s President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., followed by a reception.

No less than at Greccio, no less than at Bethlehem, this will be an intimate moment in which anyone and everyone is invited to share.

Contact: Brett Robinson, 574-631-6109,