VATICAN CITY – The relics venerated as the crib the baby Jesus used in a Bethlehem grotto are in an alarming state of degradation, some church officials said.
The remains have become so fragile that officials at Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major, where the crib is located, decided to suspend this year’s annual Christmas Eve tradition when the relics are carried from the crypt beneath the main altar in a procession around the basilica and displayed in front of the altar all Christmas Day.
Two of the five wooden slats are showing signs of “troublesome deterioration,” Monsignor Emilio Silvestrini, a priest at the basilica, told the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire.
He said Dec. 28 that “for years” they had noticed the crib’s fragile condition had worsened.
The small wooden boards are protected inside an elegant silver and glass cradle-shaped reliquary in a little chapel under the basilica’s main altar.
The relics were brought to Rome from Palestine after Pope Theodore I was elected pontiff in 642, said Bishop Franco Gualdrini, prefect of the basilica’s sacristy, in an interview with Vatican Radio Dec. 28.
The bishop said the pope sent the relics to be housed in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, which was called St. Mary of the Crib after it obtained the relics.
Bishop Gualdrini said that early next year they will set up “a commission of experts to take a look at the crib, examine it and say what the appropriate thing to do” will be.
He said the crib and the 19th-century reliquary need “urgent restoration.”
In a Dec. 28 interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, Bishop Gualdrini said it is too early to tell if the damage is being caused by woodworms or other parasites, but that “there seems to be fine wood dust near the relics.”
Monsignor Granito Tavanti, another priest at the basilica, told Catholic News Service Dec. 28 they are waiting to hear from the Vatican, which oversees the crib and will suggest which “competent experts” can best preserve the relics.
Made from the wood of a sycamore tree, two of the crib’s planks are nearly a yard long. According to Catholic encyclopedias, studies suggest the wood planks were supports for the manger which may have been made out of clay or limestone.
Monsignor Silvestrini told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera they need “a new way to preserve the relic and for carrying it (so they will) be able to display it again next Christmas.”