From Greccio to Santa Ana de Coro: faith, childhood, joy and fraternity

A small grateful chronicle on the occasion of the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the first manger prepared by Saint Francis of Assisi and the 42nd Manger Fair in Coro, Venezuela

As soon as December 2023 began, a couple of charming, almost fortuitous visual images were engraved in my spirit, arousing both a particular emotion and a sort of mental journey towards times that have left us inheritances. Both took place on the same day – December 1 – and in the same space, more specifically in the beautiful Venezuelan city of Santa Ana de Coro – capital of the Falcón State, commonly known as Coro –, whose historic urban center and port La Vela, with its architectural constructions from the Hispanic or colonial period, with its oratories, churches and houses, some converted into museums that also house valuable treasures of Catholic iconography, were declared, just thirty years ago, a world heritage site by UNESCO. with the number 658. In this way, through its sunny and somewhat lonely cobblestone streets, flanked by the walls of whitewashed or brightly painted houses, with their typical tall, rectangular windows with rustic vertical bars or elegant built-in balusters, which in succession during a walk are interrupted by the periodic access gates to the houses with tiled roofs that offer a spatial framework open to the sky, in the first image different groups of Franciscan friars could be seen with their characteristic habits – tunic, hood, cord, and sandals -, varying between brown and gray, with some distinctive detail in their shape according to the specific order, who walked and sometimes also jumped and sang in a game with complete naturalness and contagious joy. Whoever contemplated this animated timeless image thus isolated, perhaps could not establish a specific date of occurrence, as if it belonged to another era, to a distant past already gone and perhaps more diffuse, perhaps like that of the time when Venezuela was going through its Hispanic century. XVIII, and yet it became present in the third millennium of our era, drawing smiles of intimate conviction.

The second image has its origin in a specific activity that, for some time, has been carried out every year in Coro: the traditional parade of preschool children from more than seventy Falconian educational institutions representing the relevant characters from the Christmas Nativity scene in order to begin the popular Manger Fair; To our admiration and joy, this festive event then reached its 42nd edition, an unusual number in the Venezuelan context, and which was the result of the happy occurrence of Monsignor Ramón Ovidio Pérez Morales when he was Bishop of the city during the eighties.  After we participated in the solemn mass at seven thirty in the morning in the very old, simple and beautiful Hermitage of San Clemente, thus opening the First National Franciscan Congress. From Greccio to Coro, we accompanied that colorful parade that started from the Plaza de la Cruz de San Clemente, precisely the place of the first mass in Venezuela in 1527, the initial moment of evangelization in South America. Boys and girls from each school, between four and six years old, participating in what could be seen as different synthetic and walking nativity scenes, wore with all dignity and joy the attire of little shepherds, little angels, wise men, Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary with a doll in arms representing the little Baby Jesus (some schools included a real baby that his parents, also enthusiastic walkers, lent with a little more risk). But this occasion was even more unique, because to complete the picture of characters from the manger that we all know, little children dressed as Saint Francis of Assisi accompanied the rest of the cast remembering the brilliant idea that il Poverello had for the celebration of Christmas in Greccio in 1223. The inventiveness of the parents and teachers in the elaboration of the costumes that sought to reproduce that of the Saint of Assisi, a figure now inseparable from the manger group, varied between some fantasy of shiny fabric and a surprising fidelity with the miniature copy of the brown habits of the current Franciscan friars minor. In my childhood memory I keep the feeling of that kind of special responsibility and very personal adventure that always involved dressing up as a certain character or a party costume, interpreting it in the real experience of the game with all its implications, so the contemplation of that image of the little children, with their seriousness, their candor and their joy in the walk to their mangers never ceased to cause wonder.

Presided over by the beautiful image – “the Tallita Indígena Caquetía” – of Our Lady of Guadalupe of El Carrizal, the Blessed Virgin, patron saint of the State of Falcón and the Archdiocese of Coro, the parade that inaugurated the Feria del Pesebre concluded with the pleasant Proclamation Christmas read in the form of a song by Fray Juan Francisco Moreno García, on behalf of the custody of the minor friars of Venezuela, “to announce in the Church the mystery of the humanized God, the incarnation of the Word in love.” And in reference to the Franciscan anniversary, the proclamation continued: “Let the entire Creation exult with joy if in the arms of Francis it admires and contemplates a God who becomes a little child.” In line with these festive feelings of the Fair, we then went to the official opening of the beautiful exhibitions “Roselena’s Nativity Scenes”, an anthological set of private origin, and the “Masterpieces of the Collection” in the “Monseñor” Manger Museum. Ramón Ovidio Pérez Morales”, unique museum institution in Venezuela. The fact that a city fair with these characteristics occurs in our country, which embraces the tradition of an expression of deep religiosity and also responds to artisanal ingenuity, is news that in itself constitutes a very pleasant surprise, even more so when we become aware that the unique regional festival has already surpassed four decades of admirable perseverance and dedication. But also, precisely because of the double festive occasion of the fair and the eighth centenary of the first manger prepared by the Saint of Assisi, the First National Franciscan Congress was organized. From Greccio to Coro, and it is precisely this reason that led to the image of charm with which I began this chronicle. In this way, different brothers and sisters from the various orders inspired by the unique charisma of Saint Francis of Assisi and belonging to the different Venezuelan regions gathered in the warm Choir for the unprecedented meeting: the Franciscan friars minor and the friars minor Capuchin ( Caracas); the brothers and sisters of the third regular Franciscan orders of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Caracas), of the Inmaculada (Zulia and Caracas), of the White Cross (La Victoria), of the Blessed Sacrament (Maracay), of José and María (Barquisimeto ) and Divine Mercy (Chorus); and the sisters and brothers of the secular Franciscan order (Barquisimeto, Guanare and Caracas). The organization of the unprecedented congress was thanks to the dedicated work and enthusiastic initiative of Fray John Ávila and his tenacious Franciscan Brothers of La Divina Misericordia; from Ms. Belkis Weffer, Director of the Manger Museum, and her team; of Professor Roselena Sanchez, Head of the Francisco de Miranda National Experimental University, delicate and studious nativity scene; of Sister Nancy Sierra Camacho, and of a very dedicated committee of many people, whose names were not included due to the understandable “injustice” of the tight space of these lines. The event, which showed the deep, sincere and serene faith of the very kind and welcoming Corian people, also had the generous support of the Archdiocese of Coro and its Archbishop Emeritus, Monsignor Mariano Parra Sandoval, of Caritas of Coro, of the Venezuelan Conference of Religious Women and Men (CONVER), as well as with the contributions of the City Mayor’s Office and the State Government. On the afternoon of that day, the Franciscan Congress was held, beginning with the preparatory prayer for the celebration of Christmas in Greccio and the enthronement of the Child Jesus in an ad hoc manger, at the same time that we sang the Venezuelan Christmas bonus of the 19th century “Cute boy”​

Three presentations made up the set of study and meditation for that day of the Congress. The first was led by Fray Alfonso Mora Pereira, Custos of the Minor Capuchin Brothers of Venezuela, and whose title was “Greccio: a window into the mystery of God incarnate.” Saint Francis, Fray Alfonso told us, opens that window “to peer into the mystery of God made Child, because he sees in the image of the manger a communicative force that words were not always able to transmit.” Thus, “Greccio’s manger reveals one of the fundamental truths of our faith: God became man in flesh and blood, the mystery of God in all his omnipotence was in Bethlehem lying in an animal stable.” And he continued: “Eight hundred years later we continue using the same window to celebrate our Christmas and contemplate the strange designs of God who comes to reorient our criteria and aspirations, because for Him who wants to be great must become small (cf. Mt 20, 26) . The manger summons the family and the church that gathers around it to express faith in God and the feelings of affection and family joy, but whoever wishes to contemplate the manger must make a journey from the city to the periphery because the manger does not “It is not in a palace but in a poor grotto on the outskirts of Bethlehem and Greccio.”

It was my turn to offer the second presentation based on the illuminating lines of a verse by Rainer Maria Rilke: “”Singing is existence.” About Saint Francis of Assisi and the first manger in Greccio. “Singing is existence” is a reality that is discovered to us and makes us understand, just as with the gesture of Saint Francis eight centuries ago, the invitation to recognize and celebrate the immense joy that floods the spirit and manifests itself in the being. for the announcement and experience of reconciliation; the great grace and possibility for full existence that has been opened by the love of God when he chooses to become man for our redemption: the Baby of Bethlehem, Immanuel: God with us. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men in whom he delights!”, sang the angels of heaven, and the shepherds, after visiting and contemplating the “baby lying in the manger” alongside To Mary and Joseph, amazed, and perhaps continuing that same song, “they returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2, 14-20). With Jesus, who in his full humanity gives himself for our salvation, the essential meaning of love is announced that invites the reconciliation of the being in each of us: with God, with our intimacy, with our neighbor and with our house, the entire Creation.

The final conference was given by Monsignor Ramón Ovidio Pérez Morales, Archbishop-Bishop Emeritus of Los Teques, who spoke to us about “The manger and the evangelization of culture.” The illustrious Monsignor questioned us sharply: “The manger is a means of evangelization of culture. What message does the manger give about God, human beings, society, nature? (…) What does the manger teach and highlight in our concrete world? They say that the manger is like an open Bible. And a bottomless pedagogical barrel. “Better than giving answers is to ask questions that open to compromise.” And these same ones will point to the challenges that we must face in our concrete reality. For this reason, he observed that “naive mangers are the most conducive to evangelization in its double direction of contribution-reception. Giant children next to tiny houses, lions walking among humans, are lessons, for example, that for God there are no measurements and that universal reconciliation is messianic prophecy. Monsignor did not fail to include a nice personal anecdote from his childhood in which the gift of a plastic crocodile, toothed and terrifying, was naturally incorporated by him and his brothers into the landscape of their home nativity scene, coexisting peacefully and without problems. in one of the scenes with the devout shepherds, perhaps hinting at the possibility of the remembered lost Eden and the promise of reconciliation. Monsignor Ovidio also wanted to add the description of a pair of synthesis images that he proposes for our meditation on the evangelizing mission of the manger, inextricably linking the divine love of the Holy Trinity in Christmas: the Trinitarian manger. Thus we would have a small, smaller and more essential manger, which presents an equilateral triangle that includes in its area the Holy Family in Bethlehem, perhaps with some other character that sneaks inside, such as a worshiping shepherd or the mule and the ox. And we would also have another larger and more comprehensive manger that is framed in the landscape of Bethlehem, extended with more characters and scenes, where the birth grotto has the precise shape, a triangle with equal sides, the same geometric figure, symbol of the Trinity.

The congress session culminated brilliantly with a wonderful and enjoyable concert by the Falcón Choir, performing an exciting repertoire of various Christmas pieces. The next day, December 2, the extension of the Franciscan meeting took place with an early mass at seven thirty in the morning in the community of the Franciscan Brothers of the Divine Mercy, in the small Santa Monica Chapel in the La Toma sector. , on the outskirts of Coro (San Antonio de Padua Parish). The very small dimensions of the suggestive oratory and the very simple constructions of the community allowed the imagination to launch into a game that could homologate that space as the one perhaps lived by the first minor brothers in the vicinity of the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels of the Porziuncola a few kilometers from Assisi. The forest and fields of the Umbrian valley of the distant 13th century were replaced in our case by the dry xerophytic landscape and the hard, persistent and emblematic cují trees (Prosopis juliflora) that offer their shade in the sunny environment. Like Il Poverello and his companions, the Franciscan Brothers of Divine Mercy go out to the neighboring region in their evangelizing work. The celebration of the Eucharist was presided over by Monsignor Mariano José Parra Sandoval, who in his homily highlighted the Franciscan joy that had spread to the city of Coro. “From now on – he confessed with similar words – my greeting to everyone will be “Peace and good”. These Franciscans…!”, he concluded as if in pleased complicity of evangelical affirmation. Curiously, the day before, the Mayor of Coro, Henry Hernández, in his official greeting to the Franciscan Congress, also gave with a smile a “Peace and good” to all those present, multiplying the motto of priceless wishes, leading me to remember that occasion when the younger brothers, around 1225 and at the request of Saint Francis, precisely promoted peace by singing the Canticle of Brother Sun before the civil and religious authorities of Assisi, before the bishop and the podesta of that time. After the mass, we had a tasty fellowship in the space of the land that opens behind the chapel and that the cujís benefit from their shade. Fray Alfonso exclaimed that the vivid images made him think of the memorable Chapter of the mats shortly before the summer of 1221, although of course on a much smaller scale. But the fraternal spirit that animated us was also the heir of that genealogy of the Saint of Assisi, and in this way, sisters and brothers, friars, consecrated persons and lay people, we lived the joy that ignited faith opens the heart to the love that desires to spread as an evangelizing mission. also with the conviction of continuing the path of the Franciscan centenaries to be celebrated in the coming years. With this we began once again, with gratitude and with renewed strength, the Advent route towards the glorious Christmas of the Lord. Peace and good!