Advent and Christmas at the Vatican

Happenings Around the Eternal City


O CHRISTMAS TREE. Christmas Day in St. Peter’s Square. 2014 CNA/Lauren Cater


VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has been in top gear preparing for Christmas.

In order to be ready for the kickoff of the Year of Mercy on Dec. 8, Pope Benedict XVI’s native homeland delivered to the Vatican a 105-foot-tall spruce tree, which arrived on Nov. 18 and was erected by the staff of the Vatican Gardens overnight in St. Peter’s Square, according to Vatican Radio. The spruce tree was driven from Bavaria, Germany, to Italy in a red-colored armored truck bearing the words Post Für Papa (“Mail for the Pope”).

This year, the Vatican collaborated with the Countess Lene Thun Foundation, recreating Nativity designs made by children suffering from cancer. That foundation, according to its website, “offers recreation therapy to children in oncology wards across Italy.” The Vatican tree will be illuminated during a ceremony on Dec. 18 in St. Peter’s Square, and children benefiting from the work of the foundation will participate.

In addition to the tree, the traditional Nativity scene will occupy the center of the square.

“The crib scene and figures were donated by the Archdiocese of Trento, collaborating with the Friends of the Crib of Tesero group,” Vatican Radio said. The display will feature 24 life-size figures.

Last year’s tree came from the southern Italian region of Calabria, which Pope Francis visited in June 2014. The Vatican has erected a tree and Nativity scene in the square outside of St. Peter’s Basilica since Pope St. John Paul II began the custom in 1982.


Year of Mercy

The Year of Mercy is also inaugurated. Pope Francis proclaimed the year-long celebration in April, declaring that “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” He called upon the Church “constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy,” which is the “wellspring of joy, serenity and peace.” He added, “Our salvation depends on it.”

At St. Peter’s Basilica on Nov. 17, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the archpriest of the basilica, led a special ceremony in advance of the opening of the jubilee year. Following a procession and prayer service, Vatican construction workers began the process of freeing the holy door used during jubilees from a protective brick wall. The encasement has kept the door hidden since the jubilee of 2000.

Workers removed a zinc-coated box that contained “several documents certifying the closure of the holy door” in 2000, as well as “the keys which [allowed] Pope Francis to open the holy door on Dec. 8 of this year, as well as the parchment deed, some bricks and several commemorative medals,” according to Vatican Radio officials.

Pope Francis ceremoniously opened the holy door at 9:30am on Dec. 8, during a special liturgical celebration in St. Peter’s Basilica. On that same day, which also marked the Solemnity of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, an image of Mary was publicly venerated at Piazza di Spagna. Our Lady is honored under that title as patroness of both Spain and the United States, as well as Argentina, Brazil, Korea, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Philippines, Portugal and Uruguay.

Prior to the commencement of the jubilee, the Pope continued readying the Church for the great celebration by speaking on the theme of mercy during his six-day apostolic visit to three African nations, which began Nov. 25. (See story on page 5.)

Father Paul Samasumo from Vatican Radio’s African service said that “the Pope explains that the year which starts on Dec. 8, feast of the Immaculate Conception and the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, is meant to proclaim the Gospel to the world in new ways, bringing God’s mercy to everyone.” For this reason, “the Holy Father has requested that every diocese in Africa and the world open a similar ‘Door of Mercy’ for local celebrations of the jubilee.”


More Celebrations

Still more high-profile celebrations will fill out the Vatican’s Advent calendar. On Dec. 12, the day Catholics honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, there was a special liturgy at St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis himself presided over that Mass. Our Lady of Guadalupe is honored as the Empress of the Americas, especially in Mexico. She is also the patroness of the pro-life movement under that title.

Then, on Gaudete Sunday, Dec. 13, there will be a solemn liturgical celebration at 9:30am at the papal archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the titular church of the bishop of Rome. During this Mass, the Holy Father will open the jubilee door of his cathedral-basilica. Also on that day, Cardinal James Michael Harvey from the United States, who currently serves as the cardinal-archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, will preside over a liturgy at that basilica that will see the opening of the holy door there. That liturgy is scheduled for 10:30am Rome time.

On Christmas Eve at 9:30pm local time, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass for the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord in St. Peter’s. EWTN will broadcast the event live. On Christmas Day, the Holy Father will deliver the annual blessing and message urbi et orbi (“to the city of Rome and the world”) from the loggia of St. Peter’s. Then, on Dec. 31, the Pope will celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, at 5pm Rome time in St. Peter’s. The event will consist of First Vespers and Te Deum, in Thanksgiving for the past year.

While the Vatican is busily preparing for Christmas this Advent, many are concerned about security precautions in and around Rome, especially in the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. James, an American traveler in Rome, said, “I’m excited to be here visiting the holy sites, but I’m a little apprehensive at the same time.”

Nonetheless, according to Italian officials, Rome and the Vatican can expect to be secure during these holy seasons. Giacomo, a policeman who has been in service for two decades, said, “Our task is to keep Rome, the Pope and the people safe. I know we will do that.”


John Paul Shimek writes from Rome.