VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI will be undertaking his usual intense schedule over Christmas this year, delivering 11 homilies and addresses from Christmas Eve until the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.
But in contrast to previous years, this year’s celebrations will reflect solidarity with some of the economic austerity shared by much of the world.
The first sign that Christmas is drawing near at the Vatican is the lighting of an enormous Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square. In past years, the tree was a gift from the northern Italian Alps or abroad; this year, however, the donation came from the Molise region, about 150 miles southeast of Rome. Measuring a height of more than 70 feet, it was delivered Dec. 5 to St. Peter’s Square with the help of a crane. The tree was to be lit on Dec. 14.
Before the traditions and liturgical celebrations of Christmas begin, the Pope will turn his attention to his colleagues in the Roman Curia Dec. 21, when he holds his annual meeting with cardinals and other officials. During the meeting, the Holy Father usually provides a review of the past year in the life of the Church — a year in which the Vatican itself has had to face the challenge of dealing with the unauthorized leaking of confidential documents from the papal apartments by the Pope’s former valet.
Christmas proper at the Vatican will then begin with the "Inauguration of the Crib" in St. Peter’s Square in the early evening of Dec. 24. Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, is expected to lead the ceremony, which will include a concert of Christmas music and carols. After the closing prayer, the Holy Father will appear from his apartment window above the square to light the "Lamp of Peace."
The larger-than-life-size Nativity scene, at the foot of the square’s central obelisk, will still have the usual components of past cribs, but as with the Christmas tree, the Vatican has cut costs. Rather than look further afield, as in previous years, it has chosen the Molise region to provide the manger and the nearby Basilicata region to furnish the Nativity scene.
The tradition, begun by Blessed John Paul II in 1982, has hitherto been carried out by the Technical Services Department of the Governorate of Vatican City. This year’s Nativity display, however, is reported to cost the Vatican nothing, as it has been paid for entirely by sponsors.
The Christmas liturgies then get under way with midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, beginning at 10pm local time. This will be followed by the Holy Father’s address and blessing urbi et orbi on the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, delivered from the central loggia of the basilica.
This year’s message, as with previous ones, will call on the faithful to pray to God for those caught up in conflict or others faced with grave suffering. But he will couple these invocations with words of encouragement and hope, based on the birth of Christ and his universal message of reconciliation and peace.
The 12 Days of Christmas
The following day, on the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr, Benedict XVI will deliver an Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square.
In an addition to his usual calendar of events, the Pope will also be holding an extra meeting on Dec. 29, when, in St. Peter’s Basilica, he greets participants of a European meeting of the Taize ecumenical community. The ecumenical group, based in Burgundy, France, is teaming up with the youth ministry of the Vicariate of Rome to hold its 35th European meeting in Rome. Tens of thousands of young people are expected to participate in the Dec. 28-Jan. 2 pilgrimage, which coincides with the Year of Faith.
The traditional Christmas schedule will then resume with the Pope presiding over vespers and Te Deum celebrations in thanks for the passing year in St. Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Eve, followed by the 45th World Day of Peace on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on Jan. 1.
This year’s message, whose theme is "Blessed Are the Peacemakers," takes note of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and also of the encyclical letter Pacem in Terris by Pope John XXIII. Although already published earlier this month, the message will be officially presented to world leaders that day, during a Mass in which the Holy Father will deliver the homily. Benedict XVI will recite the Angelus prayer after the Mass.
The Holy Father officially brings the Christmas celebrations to a close on the Epiphany of the Lord on Jan. 6. The Mass will include episcopal ordinations and will be followed by an Angelus prayer.
As in previous years, after a challenging schedule of events, the Holy Father is expected to enjoy a few days of rest at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, which is 20 miles outside of Rome.