Vatican’s Christmas Liturgies Restricted Due to COVID Concerns

The number of faithful taking part in the Christmas liturgical celebrations will be limited, but all scheduled ceremonies will be livestreamed on social media and other platforms.

A Swiss Guard stands watch near a Christmas tree in the Paul VI Audience Hall during the Pope’s weekly general audience on Dec. 1.
A Swiss Guard stands watch near a Christmas tree in the Paul VI Audience Hall during the Pope’s weekly general audience on Dec. 1. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / CNA/EWTN News)

VATICAN CITY — For the second year running, restrictions have been placed on the Vatican’s Christmas liturgical celebrations due to continued concerns at the Vatican over COVID-19.  

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told the Register Dec. 9 that he believed the number of faithful able to take part in the liturgies celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica over the festive period would be “limited,” as happened last year. 

However, while the Vatican has maintained a Green Pass policy — which requires proof of vaccination, recent recovery from COVID-19 or a negative test for visitors and employees — the requirement is expected to be waived for liturgies and the Pope’s general audiences. 

All the Christmas liturgical celebrations will also be livestreamed on social media and other platforms. 

The Holy Mass of the Christmas Vigil, celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica, will again begin at 7.30pm rather than the customary 9.30pm. It is not clear why it will take place at the earlier hour given that a curfew the government had imposed over the Christmas period last year, from 10pm until 5am, is no longer in force. 

Only a couple of hundred, “socially distanced” faithful were allowed to take part in last year’s Christmas Vigil Mass at the basilica’s Altar of the Chair, but it is unlikely the numbers will be as severely restricted this year. 

At noon on Christmas Day, the Holy Father will give his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (“to the City and to the World”) message and blessing. This year it is expected to customarily take place on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, unlike in 2020 when it was livestreamed from inside the apostolic palace, although this has yet to be confirmed.

Concern for migrants, victims of conflicts around the world and the mention of other global trouble spots will likely form the content of his message, as in previous years.  

On Dec. 31, the Pope will preside over First Vespers and the Te Deum in thanksgiving for the past year in St. Peter’s Basilica at 5pm. This will be followed on the first day of the new year with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God — which is also the 55th World Day of Peace — when the Pope will celebrate Mass at 10am in St. Peter’s. 

Also scheduled in St. Peter’s is a papal Mass on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, Jan. 6 at 10am.

On Jan. 9 at 9:30am, in the Sistine Chapel, the Pope will offer Mass on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, during which he will, as is customary, baptize a group of children of Vatican employees. 

In addition to the liturgical events, the Vatican will hold its 29th Christmas Concert on Dec. 16 in the Paul VI Audience Hall, a charity event whose proceeds have, for the past few years, gone to projects run by the Scholas Occurrentes Foundation and Don Bosco Missions

This year’s artists will include Jamaican singer Shaggy, the flautist Ian Anderson, and Indonesian singer Anggun. Past headliners have included singers Susan Boyle, Lionel Richie and Bonnie Tyler. From 2007 to 2017 the concert took place outside the Vatican after a series of artists caused scandal by using the event to make statements critical of the Church or her moral teaching.

On Dec. 23, at 10am, the Pope will give his traditional greetings to the Roman Curia in the Clementine Hall in the Vatican, unchanged from last year. Both Francis and Benedict XVI have used the occasion to make significant addresses in the past. 

The Vatican begins to enter the Christmas spirit when the Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Basilica is lit and a life-sized nativity scene in St. Peter’s Basilica is inaugurated by Archbishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga and Sister Raffaella Petrini, respectively president and secretary of the Governorate of the Vatican City State.

This year the majestic spruce, nearly 100 feet high and weighing 8 tons, comes from Andalo in the Archdiocese of Trent. A delegation from the region including Archbishop Lauro Tisi of Trent and the town’s mayor, Alberto Perli, will be present. 

However, uprooting the 113-year-old tree has caused some controversy, with locals reportedly wondering whether it was “really necessary” to sacrifice such a distinguished spruce. 

The tree’s removal is “a wound to nature and to Christmas,” said Nando Bonessio, president of an environmental group, and Guglielmo Calcerano, a Rome civil servant and environmentalist.

“Undoubtedly the Pope, always attentive to environmental issues, was not informed. But whoever managed the affair on his behalf didn’t understand the damage it has caused to an entire community,” they said. 

This year’s Vatican Nativity scene comes from Chopcca, a small town in the Peruvian Andes. It will have more than 30 pieces and is sculpted by five renowned Peruvian artists. 

Unlike last year’s creche, which was criticized as a “disgrace” and “demonic” for its post-modern, outer-space appearance, and the 2017 Nativity scene, which some critics alleged contained homosexual undertones, this year’s offering is not expected to draw controversy.