VATICAN CITY, MAR 22, 2000 (VIS) - Following lunch at the Franciscan-run house for pilgrims, the Pope departed in early afternoon for a private visit to the Basilica and Grotto of the Nativity on Manger Square where he celebrated Mass this morning.
The very first Basilica of the Nativity was built by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, in 326.
Just over 200 years later Emperor Justinian embellished it with a mosaic floor. The basilica was spared damage in ensuing centuries during the Arab occupation and regained its original splendor during the time of the Crusades. In 1347 the Franciscans came into possession of both the basilica and the grotto.

The present situation of co-ownership and administration of the Basilica of the Nativity by Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Latin Catholics is due to the Status Quo, an 1862 code and Ottoman decree which regulates religious life at the Holy Sepulchre and at Bethlehem.

The Greeks own the basilica, except for the north part of the transept which belongs to the Armenians. The Grotto of the Nativity belongs to the Franciscans and is divided into two parts: the Altar of the Nativity, of the Greeks, and the Altar of the Manger in the Grotto of the Magi, of the Latins. Next to the basilica the Franciscans built the Church of St. Catherine where the Roman rite is celebrated.

On both sides of the Greek choir in the basilica are the two entrances to the Grotto of the Nativity.
which is rectangular and measures 12 meters in length and 3 meters in both width and height. The bronze doors and marble portals date from the era of the crusades. The apse covers the Altar of the Nativity, under which there is a marble slab with a silver star and the Latin inscription: "Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est" (Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary). To the right of the Altar of the Nativity is the Grotto of the Magi where Catholic Masses are celebrated.

On his visit the Pope passed through the Latin Church of St. Catherine and entered the Basilica of the Nativity on the left side.