VATICAN CITY — The Vatican Christmas tree was lit Thursday, kicking off a full Advent and Christmas for the Holy Father.
As every year, a particularly busy schedule awaits Pope Francis during the Octave of Christmas, with the highlights being the celebration of midnight Mass, delivering his “urbi et orbi” blessing and message, and giving his World Day of Peace Message on Jan. 1.
But this year, security is expected to be especially tight around the Vatican, following a number of threats from Islamist groups, although their warnings are thought to have been largely bids to distract attention from their recent military defeats in Iraq and Syria.
On Christmas Eve, the Holy Father will celebrate Christmas Mass “during the night” in St. Peter’s Basilica. It does not actually take place as a midnight Mass, as it begins at 9:30pm Rome time, but a throng is still expected to attend and hear the Pope’s homily on the meaning of Christmas.
On Christmas Day at noon, the Pope will deliver his annual Christmas message, ahead of the traditional blessing and message urbi et orbi (“to the city of Rome and to the whole world”). In his message, he is expected to single out areas of considerable suffering in the world, in particular the continuing conflict in Syria, tensions on the Korean Peninsula and social unrest in Venezuela.
But he is expected to conclude with the Church’s timeless message of joy and hope, explaining that Christmas is about peace on earth to men and women of goodwill and that the liturgical celebration celebrates the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and is, therefore, a time to rejoice.
Both the Mass on Christmas Eve and the Pope’s Christmas message will be broadcast by EWTN with live commentary in English.
On the first day after Christmas, the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr, the Pope will recite the Angelus at noon in St. Peter’s Square. The following day, Dec. 27, the Holy Father will hold his weekly general audience, possibly again in St. Peter’s Square, depending on the weather.
The Pope’s next major engagement will be on New Year’s Eve, when he will lead the celebration of First Vespers for the Solemnity of Mary, the Most Holy Mother of God, at St. Peter’s Basilica.
After vespers, which will begin at 5pm Rome time, the Blessed Sacrament will be exposed on the altar for a period of adoration, and the traditional hymn Te Deum will be sung in thanksgiving at the conclusion of the civil year. The liturgical celebration will conclude with Benediction of the Most Holy Sacrament.
This Year’s Crèche
After the ceremonies within St. Peter’s, Pope Francis is expected to visit the larger-than-life-size presepe, or crèche, in St. Peter’s Square that was inaugurated Dec. 7, where he is expected to spend some time in silent prayer.
This year, the crib scene is a donation from the ancient Abbey of Montevergine in the Campania region of southern Italy. The scenery and crib figures, in 18th-century Neapolitan costumes, have been produced by artisans in a local workshop and are inspired by the theme of the “Seven Works of Mercy.”
Made of colored terracotta with garments in traditional fabrics, the crib contains 20 statues, each about 2 meters tall, positioned in an area of about 850 square feet.
Accompanying the Nativity scene is a giant Christmas tree, 90 feet high, given by the Archdiocese of Elk, in northeastern Poland, and decorated with stars and baubles designed by young cancer patients from several Italian hospitals. A number of children from the Spoleto-Norcia Archdiocese, an earthquake-hit area of central Italy, also took part.
Until 2015, the crib remained in St. Peter’s Square until the traditional end of the “Christmas Cycle” — the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, 40 days after Christmas. But starting last year, the tree and the crib have been taken down on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year will take place Jan. 7, 2018. It will mark the traditional end of “Christmastide.”
On Jan. 1, Pope Francis will offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the Solemnity of Mary, the Most Holy Mother of God. The Mass will begin at 10am Rome time and will also be broadcast on EWTN with live English commentary.
The Pope’s message this year, released, as is customary, shortly ahead of the Christmas celebrations, is on the theme “Migrants and Refugees: Men and Women in Search of Peace.” The Holy Father makes a plea to show compassion and embrace all those forced to leave their homelands by carrying out four actions: “welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating.”
After the Mass on New Year’s Day, Pope Francis will pray the Angelus at noon with all the faithful in St. Peter’s Square and around the world.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.