Pope Francis’ first Advent and Christmas at the Vatican look set to be much like those of his predecessors, but with the possibility of a few surprises.
As in previous years, it will be liturgically intense, with no clear change in custom.
According to the liturgical schedule published Nov. 28 by Msgr. Guido Marini, master of papal liturgical ceremonies, Pope Francis will begin the seasonal celebrations in the usual way by celebrating the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on Dec. 8 at Rome’s Spanish Steps, where he will pray before an image of the Blessed Mother.
On Dec. 21, the Pope will visit the pediatric Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome. Announcing the visit at a Vatican concert in support of the hospital on Dec. 2, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, said that, like his predecessors, Pope Francis shows "a father’s overflowing love for children."
"The more childhood is protected and promoted," Archbishop Parolin said, "the much greater the hope of a balanced and peaceful future will be." And he added that a serene environment is "indispensable in allowing children and their parents, already tested by illness and pain, to deal with these harsh circumstances of life, in a climate filled with humanity and delicacy."
Founded in 1869, the hospital is now part of Italy’s health-care system, although it remains on extraterritorial grounds administered by the Holy See. It has developed a high level of expertise in treating children coming not only from Rome or Italy, but also from neighboring European countries.
At 9:30pm on Dec. 24, Pope Francis will begin the celebration of Christmas Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Benedict XVI also celebrated midnight Mass at an earlier time during his later years. Also, unlike Blessed John Paul II, Francis won’t be celebrating an additional Mass on Christmas morning.
Instead, at noon on Christmas Day, from the loggia of St. Peter’s basilica, the Holy Father will deliver the customary address to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square and give his address and blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world).
In the past, the message has been a general survey of the world situation, with particular reference made to conflicts. The situation in Syria — of great concern to the Pope — will undoubtedly be mentioned, as will violence and unrest in the wider region.
But Francis may also add some specifics into his message, relating it more to the common man and his own priorities of world concerns. Those suffering from economic strife, youth unemployment and the welfare of the elderly — also all issues of special concern to the Holy Father — are likely to warrant a mention.
The next major papal liturgy will be vespers on Dec. 31 in St. Peter’s Basilica, during which the Pope will lead the "Te Deum" in thanksgiving to God for the year that is ending.
Then, on Jan. 1, the feast of Mary, Mother of God, and the 47th World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass at 10am in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The theme of the message for 2014 is "Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace," echoing the Pope’s calls for solidarity that have become a hallmark of his pontificate.
"In the face of the many tragedies that afflict the family of nations — poverty, hunger, underdevelopment, conflicts, migrations, pollution, inequalities, injustice, organized crime, fundamentalisms — fraternity is the foundation and the pathway to peace," the Vatican said in a statement issued in July. "Fraternity is a dowry that every man and every woman brings with himself or herself as a human being, as a child of the one Father."
The Vatican statement also underscored that, in modern society, the predominant "culture of personal well-being" leads to "a loss of the sense of responsibility and fraternal relationship."
Living a life based in fraternity is "a gift and task that comes from God the Father," the message will underline; it will urge others to be "in solidarity against inequality and poverty that undermine the social fabric, to take care of every person, especially the weakest and most defenseless, to love him or her as oneself, with the very heart of Jesus Christ."
Fraternity, the message will say, serves to defeat the spread of the globalization of indifference to which Pope Francis has frequently referred. As an alternative, the Pope will propose a "globalization of fraternity," which leaves its mark on "every aspect of life, including the economy, finance, civil society, politics, research, development, public and cultural institutions."
The Christmas season ends in January. On Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, the Holy Father will celebrate Mass at 10am in St. Peter’s Basilica. And as is customary, on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Jan. 12, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in the Sistine Chapel and baptize infants.
Other traditions will also remain intact at the Vatican. A near life-size crib will be erected in St. Peter’s Square, this year created by artisans from Naples, Italy. As the Nativity scene tradition dates from the time of St. Francis of Assisi, this year’s theme will aptly be: "Francis 1223-Francis 2013."
Meanwhile, the usual large Christmas tree already adorns St. Peter’s Square. Transported in from Bavaria, Germany, on Dec. 6, it is more than 80 feet high.
Throughout the Christmas festivities, Pope Francis will undoubtedly remind the faithful of the true meaning of the Nativity, beyond its identification with consumerism that is so prevalent in the West.
"Christmas isn’t just a temporal celebration or the memory of a beautiful [event]," the Holy Father said in his morning homily Dec. 2. "Christmas is something more: Christmas is an encounter [with the Lord]."