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Christmas: A tree grows in St. Peter's Square

The Vatican's annual Christmas tree tradition caps a difficult year for the Catholic Church.

The 2009 Vatican Christmas tree came from the Ardennes forest in Belgium. The 100-foot tree was a gift to Pope Benedict XVI. (Fulvio Paolocci/GlobalPost)

VATICAN CITY — Un-saintly sounds of chainsaws startled tourists, priests and nuns one morning in early December. At the center of St. Peter’s Square, workers in orange uniforms were preparing to lift a 100-foot-tall Christmas tree. The massive pine had arrived overnight as a gift to the pope.

The Christmas tree, which came from the Ardennes forests in Belgium, took over a week to make it to Rome.

“That tree is about 90 years old,” said Rudolphe Croene of the Belgian Embassy at the Vatican. “For the tree, finishing its days in St. Peter’s Square is a glorious end.”

To pay homage to the most influential city-state in the world, governments stand in line for their turn to send a Christmas tree to the Vatican, a 27-year tradition.

“They asked us to make sure that the tree be nice and fluffy throughout,” said Croene.

The first-ever Vatican tree was erected in 1982, when Polish-born Pope John Paul II introduced the Northern European symbol of Christmas spirit. Since then, Austria and Italy have donated most often, with Italy holding the record for the tallest tree, 109 feet, which stood in 2006.

The crane lifted the tree on a gloomy day. While most onlookers seemed to appreciate the looks of this natural wonder, a few considered it a wasteful gift.

“I think it brings negative karma,” said Rome resident Federica Bianchi as she watched workers position the tree trunk on its pedestal, “cutting down such a beautiful tree just for show.”

But it’s too late for karma. Beneath the tree, 2009 has left a few bitter presents. This Christmas, the Vatican will have to deal with the aftermath of two scathing reports of child abuse in Ireland.

The Archdiocese of Dublin issued a 700-page report last month revealing three decades of clerical sexual abuse of children, and more than 300 accusations against priests. And last May, Ireland’s Commission on Child Abuse published a 2,600-page report denouncing the abuse of some 30,000 children in Catholic schools and orphanages between the 1930s and 1990s.

“The Church needs to constantly purify itself,” said Pope Benedict XVI at a recent Sunday Angelus prayer, “because sin threatens all of its members.”

“The church is going to be dealing with sexual abuse in the indefinite future,” said John Allen Jr., senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. “You are going to have people around the world who are going to pick up this rock and see what is underneath it.”

What has changed in recent years, Allen said, is the Vatican’s PR-savvy. That has resulted in a certain amount of damage control, which was evident in 2009.

“They have learned something about the need to be fast and explicit to apologize during crisis,” he added.

For now, Catholics around the globe await the Pope’s Pastoral Letter to the Catholic faithful of Ireland, where he will indicate what actions shall be taken in response to the devastating report.

But as the tree is lit this week, Catholics should not despair over the revelations of 2009, Allen added.

“If you opened a book of church history and randomly put your finger down on any page, whatever year you landed on whether it was 1009 or 2009 you will find a mixed bag,” Allen said. “There were some elements of hope and some elements of despair. That is the constant story of the Church. So my guess is that 2010 is going to bring more of both.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/italy/091217/christmas-tree-vatican