VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis made a surprise visit Monday to the Italian hill town of Greccio, where, centuries earlier, St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity scene.

The Jan. 4 visit included a stop at the sanctuary of the manger scene (Santuario del Presepe), where the Pope met with members of the Franciscan order. There, he prayed before a 15th-century fresco depicting the Nativity scene of Greccio on one side and the Nativity of Greccio on the other.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Pope also met with a group of young people who had gathered for a diocesan youth event in Greccio.

Pope Francis was welcomed to the town by Bishop Domenico Pompili of Rieti, the only person informed ahead of time of the Holy Father’s arrival, according to Avvenire, the news agency of the Italian bishops’ conference.

The reason for the Pope’s visit was for “personal prayer,” Avvenire reported.

The Pope concluded his brief stay in the hillside town at 3:30pm and returned to Rome by car — namely, his Ford Focus.

Located in the Rieti province north of Rome, the sanctuary of Greccio marks the site where the Christmas Nativity scene was first recreated by St. Francis on Dec. 25, 1223, the same year the rule of the Franciscan order was approved by Pope Honorius III.