VATICAN CITY — Preparations for Christmas began at the Vatican on Dec. 4, when a 75-foot-tall Christmas tree, donated by people from the Italian province of Catanzaro in Calabria, was delivered by helicopter and truck to St. Peter’s Square.

The Nativity scene in the square was constructed by a foundation in Verona, Italy, with the help of the Diocese of Venice. Measuring 24 feet high, it has been inspired by the world of opera and consists of 20 terracotta figures.

Elsewhere, the work of the Vatican continued apace. The seventh meeting of the “Group of Nine” cardinals examining reform of the Roman Curia took place Dec. 9-11.

The “World Day of Peace Message 2015” was presented to the press Dec. 10 by heads of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The message for the 48th World Day of Peace, to be delivered by Pope Francis on Jan. 1, is themed: “Slaves No More, but Brothers and Sisters.” The slavery scourge, which affects approximately 35 million people, is of great concern to the Holy Father, who has called it a “crime against humanity.”

On releasing the theme earlier this year, the pontifical council pointed out that modern-day slavery, including human trafficking, “deals a murderous blow to this fundamental fraternity, and so to peace as well.” Peace, it said, “can only exist when each human being recognizes every other person as a brother or sister with the same dignity.”

On Dec. 11, the Pope presided over the closing rites of a funeral Mass for Cardinal Jorge Maria Mejia in St. Peter’s Basilica. Cardinal Meija, who was born in Buenos Aires, died on Dec. 9 at the age of 91. Pope Francis visited him in the hospital on the day he was elected pope, after the cardinal suffered a heart attack. 

On Dec. 12, just like last year, Pope Francis celebrated Mass for Latin America in St. Peter’s Basilica on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

 

Personally Significant

Advent is personally significant for Pope Francis, especially this year, as he celebrated the 45th anniversary of his priestly ordination on Dec. 13 and will celebrate his 78th birthday on Dec. 17. Also on Dec. 13, Francis received the National Council of the Italian Union of Blind and Sight-Impaired Persons. The visit coincided with the feast of St. Lucy, the patron of those who experience eye problems and blindness.

On Dec. 14, the Pope led the traditional blessing of the Baby Jesus from children’s Nativity scenes after the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square.

“Prayer is the breath of the soul,” he told the children. “It is important to find moments throughout the day to open the heart to God.” At his Angelus for Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday, the Pope reminded the faithful: “Jesus himself is our joy.”

The benediction was preceded by a 10am Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, presided by the archpriest of the basilica, Cardinal Angelo Comastri. Later that afternoon, at 4pm, Francis, as bishop of Rome, visited the Rome parish of San Giuseppe all’Aurelio. After greeting the faithful from 4-6pm, he celebrated Mass.

 

Christmas Week

On Dec. 22, Pope Francis will receive employees of the Holy See and Vatican city state, along with their families, and give them his Christmas wishes. 

Also shortly before Christmas, the Pope will give his traditional Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia and deliver an address that, in years past, has sometimes been of major significance.  

The Holy Father presides over the customary liturgical celebrations for Christmas, beginning on Dec. 24, with Mass on the Solemnity of the Birth of Our Lord in St. Peter’s Basilica, beginning at 9:30pm. The following day, at noon, he appears on the loggia of the basilica to give his traditional urbi et orbi blessing to the city of Rome and the world. And before welcoming in the new year on Dec. 31, Francis presides over vespers and the Te Deum hymn at 5pm to give thanks for the year that has passed. The following morning, on the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, the Pope will celebrate Mass and deliver his “World Day of Peace Message” in St. Peter’s Basilica.  

 

Benedict’s Christmas

Last year, on Dec. 27, Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI lunched together at the Pope’s St. Martha residence. According to Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s personal secretary and prefect of the pontifical household, the two hadn’t discussed repeating the encounter, as of press time.

Archbishop Gänswein reminded readers in an interview in the publication Il Mio Papa on Dec. 9 that Francis first visited the pope emeritus in his monastery in the Vatican Gardens. But this year, he said lunch in the Vatican is “more difficult to repeat,” as Benedict XVI “has some problems walking.” The German prelate nevertheless hoped that Pope Francis “has a little time to come and visit Pope Benedict, who would be very happy” to see him.

The pope emeritus is likely to spend Christmas as he did as pope, exchanging gifts with the four consecrated women who help him in his residence, along with Archbishop Gänswein, and singing Christmas hymns.

Benedict “really feels the time of Christmas,” his personal secretary said. He pointed out that, at Christmas, there is a rich liturgy that “characterizes these days and which gives our prayers a special ‘perfume.’”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.