Without directly adding his own art criticism of the Nativity scene chosen by the Vatican this year for St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis has made his preference clear. Twice when speaking the faithful in the square on Sunday, the pope suggested they instead visit the 100 small, more traditional scenes set up nearby, Reuters reports. Those creches demonstrate "how people try to use art to show how Jesus was born (and) ... are a great religious education of our faith," he said. Each year, the Vatican chooses a new scene for the center of the square, and the 2020 version has a sci-fi theme. The large, ceramic statues include one of an astronaut and another that evokes Darth Vader. A visitors guide says the astronaut represents the moon landings that began in the late 1960s.
The pope isn't the scene's only critic. Visitors have been vocal, and a headline in Catholic Herald called it "The Vatican's Embarrassing SciFi Crèche," per the New York Times. But in an op-ed in the in the National Catholic Reporter, Brian Flanagan offers a defense. There's always been room for playfulness in Nativity scenes, he writes, including the one whose figures were all rubber duckies in his childhood home. Flanagan also finds it telling that the statues, which were made shortly after the Second Vatican Council, reflect a vision of the future—including space exploration. Change is still an issue in the Catholic Church. Flanagan cites a quote about the church attributed to Pope John XXIII: "We are not on Earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life." (You can read Flanagan's commentary here.)