The 800th Anniversary of Greccio and the Greccio Indulgence

The 800th Anniversary of Greccio and the Greccio Indulgence December 24, 2023

The year 2023 marks the 800th anniversary of the very first Christmas creche, which was created by St. Francis of Assisi to celebrate midnight mass in the town of Greccio in 1223.   The story is recounted by his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, and below I have pasted an extensive extract of his account.   Francis did more than create a creche:  he created a living nativity scene in a cave, complete with an ox and ass.

To mark this occasion, the Church has declared a plenary indulgence for all who pray before a creche this Christmas in a Franciscan church:

On the occasion of the 800th anniversary of St. Francis and the “Nativity scene of Greccio”, the Apostolic Penitentiary granted a plenary indulgence to all the faithful who, from 8 December 2023 (Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary) to 2 February 2024 ( Feast of the Presentation in the Temple of Our Lord Jesus Christ) visit a Nativity scene in a church entrusted to Franciscans all over the world.

The full decree may be read here.

This indulgence is a great opportunity for all Catholics to join in prayer and to ask for the intercession of our Seraphic Father, St. Francis, to bring peace to our world, and to rekindle in our hearts a love for the infant Jesus.

Wishing all of you a blessed and Merry Christmas!


An Extract from the First Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano

His highest intention, greatest desire, and supreme purpose was to observe the holy gospel in and through all things. He wanted to follow the doctrine and walk in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to do so perfectly, with all vigilance, all zeal, complete desire of the mind, complete fervor of the heart. He remembered Christ’s words through constant meditation and recalled his actions through wise consideration. The humility of the incarnation and the love of the passion so occupied his memory that he scarcely wished to think of anything else. Hence what he did in the third year before the day of his glorious death, in the town called Greccio, on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ, should be reverently remembered.

There was in that place a certain man named John, of good reputation and even better life, whom the blessed Francis particularly loved. Noble and honorable in his own land, he had trodden on nobility of the flesh and pursued that of the mind. Around fifteen days before the birthday of Christ Francis sent for this man, as he often did, and said to him, “If you wish to celebrate the approaching feast of the Lord at Greccio, hurry and do what I tell you. I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.” Upon hearing this, the good and faithful man hurried to prepare all that the holy man had requested.

The day of joy drew near, the time of exultation approached. The brothers were called from their various places. With glad hearts, the men and women of that place prepared, according to their means, candles and torches to light up that night which has illuminated all the days and years with its glittering star. Finally the holy man of God arrived and, finding everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced.

The manger is ready, hay is brought, the ox and ass are led in. Simplicity is honored there, poverty is exalted, humility is commended and a new Bethlehem, as it were, is made from Greccio. Night is illuminated like the day, delighting men and beasts. The people come and joyfully celebrate the new mystery. The forest resounds with voices and the rocks respond to their rejoicing. The brothers sing, discharging their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night echoes with jubilation. The holy man of God stands before the manger full of sighs, consumed by devotion and filled with a marvelous joy. The solemnities of the mass are performed over the manger and the priest experiences a new consolation.

The holy man of God wears a deacon’s vestments, for he was indeed a deacon, and he sings the holy gospel with a sonorous voice. And his voice, a sweet voice, a vehement voice, a clear voice, a sonorous voice, invites all to the highest rewards. Then he preaches mellifluously to the people standing about, telling them about the birth of the poor king and the little city of Bethlehem. Often, too, when he wished to mention Jesus Christ, burning with love he called him “the child of Bethlehem,” and speaking the word “Bethlehem” or “Jesus,” he licked his lips with his tongue, seeming to taste the sweetness of these words.

The gifts of the Almighty are multiplied here and a marvelous vision is seen by a certain virtuous man. For he saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger, and he saw the holy man of God approach and arouse the child as if from a deep sleep. Nor was this an unfitting vision, for in the hearts of many the child Jesus really had been forgotten, but now, by his grace and through his servant Francis, he had been brought back to life and impressed here by loving recollection. Finally the celebration ended and each returned joyfully home.

–Thomas of Celano, First Life of St. Francis, 84-86.

Cover image:  Giotto, Legend of St Francis 13, Institution of the Crib at Greccio.  Image in public domain.

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