VATICAN CITY — If Pope Benedict XVI's daily schedule includes any down time, it is hard to find by looking at his December calendar.

The so-called “public” schedule — theoretically the hours from 11 a.m. to 1 or 1:30 p.m. — is packed with audiences with heads of state and government, Advent sermons, a visit to a Roman parish, and the Dec. 8 solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and Mass marking the 40th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, to name but a few events.

All this — and much more — is on the Holy Father's December agenda, in addition to presiding at the traditional Christmas events: midnight vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Dec. 24, the Christmas Message and urbi et orbi (to the city and to the world) blessing on Dec. 25, the Angelus, which is customarily recited on the feast of St. Stephen, Dec. 26 and the celebration of First Vespers of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and Te Deum of Thanksgiving at 6 p.m. on Dec. 31 in St. Peter's Basilica.

After a busy start to Advent, including the Dec. 8 Mass to mark the 40th anniversary of the formal close of the Second Vatican Council, Benedict's schedule only gets more hectic. At the Dec. 11 Angelus, in what has become a long-standing tradition in Rome prior to Christmas, the Pope will bless statues of the Baby Jesus brought to St. Peter's Square by children who will then place them in Nativity scene cribs in homes, schools, parishes and Roman oratories.

On Dec. 12, the third group of Polish bishops will start their weeklong ad limina visit.

The Holy See Press Office has scheduled a conference for Dec. 13 to present the Holy Father's Message for World Day of Peace, Jan. 1, 2006.

On Dec. 15, at 5 p.m. in St. Peter's Basilica, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar of Rome, will preside over a Mass for students of Roman universities, following which Benedict will greet the students, their teachers and chaplains. For this occasion the Polish icon, Sedes Sapientiae (Seat of Wisdom), will be brought to Rome and, at the end of the meeting with the Pope, will be given by a Polish university delegation to one from Bulgaria, where the icon will remain until March 11, 2006.

The next day, at the end of a Mass for the Italian Armed Forces at noon in the Vatican Basilica, the Holy Father will go to the basilica to greet everyone present.

Vatican Christmas Tree

On Dec. 17, with scant time to catch his breath, Benedict will welcome a group from Austria to thank them for the country's gift of a Christmas tree for St. Peter's Square and smaller trees for other offices in the Roman Curia. A tree-lighting ceremony, scheduled for later that afternoon, will feature authorities from Vatican City State and Austria.

The large tree, traditionally placed next to the immense Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square, has been donated by the town of Eferding which this year is celebrating the 500th anniversary of its parish church.

The Pope Dec. 18 will pay his first visit as bishop of Rome to a Roman parish, Santa Maria Consolatrice in Casalbertone. The Holy Father's ties to this church go back to 1977 when Pope Paul VI made then-Archbishop Ratzinger a cardinal, bestowing on him the titular church of Santa Maria Consolatrice. This was his titular church until 1993 when he became Dean of the College of Cardinals and thus titular of the suburbicarian churches of Ostia and of Velletri-Segni.

In a final pre-Christmas appointment, cardinals, heads of departments and other high-ranking members of the Roman Curia and the pontifical family will be received by Benedict on Dec. 22, at 11 a.m. in the Clementine Hall, for an exchange of Christmas greetings.

Which leads the Holy Father into the last week of December, the Christmas solemnities and the last general audience of 2005 on Dec. 28. And leads us into wondering how he does it all. After all, this is only the public part of his days!

Joan Lewis writes from Rome.