Christmas at the Vatican

An Estimated 10,000 Pilgrims Expected for Midnight Mass

The unveiling of the Nativity scene and Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 9.
The unveiling of the Nativity scene and Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 9. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano)

As per the usual liturgical custom, Pope Francis will lead the Church into the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity on Christmas Eve, celebrating midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, beginning a fortnight of a busy schedule at the Vatican.

The Christmas papal Mass, which begins at 9:30pm, is likely to be attended by an estimated 10,000 visitors and pilgrims, as well as clergy, civic leaders and diplomats. The Holy Father is expected to preach a message of peace and hope.

At noon the following day, and from the balcony of St. Peter’s, the Pope will deliver his traditional Christmas address urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and to the world), which will focus on many of the world’s trouble spots and those facing great suffering, while, again, offering a message of hope on the day that marks the birth of the Redeemer and Prince of Peace. 

EWTN will present live coverage of both events: From 3:30pm Eastern, the network will broadcast the Mass on Christmas Eve with live commentary, and from 6am Eastern, it will begin broadcasting the Pope’s message urbi et orbi.

The Holy Father will recite the Angelus Dec. 26, the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. And then, as is traditional, he will celebrate the new year by presiding over evening prayer and singing the Te Deum hymn Dec. 31 to give thanks for the year that is passing.

On Jan. 1, he will offer Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, marking both the feast of Mary, Mother of God, and the World Day of Prayer for Peace. His message this year, the 50th of its kind since the tradition was begun by Blessed Pope Paul VI, is an appeal to nonviolence in the face of conflict — something the Pope says has active roots in a strong family life.

“To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence,” the Pope said in his message, which was released Dec. 12. “Piecemeal violence,” he said, leads to great suffering through war, terrorism, organized crime, human trafficking and environmental degradation. Rather than responding with violence to violence, he said, one should love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek, as Jesus did.

Just a few days later, he’ll celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to mark the Epiphany, and, on Jan. 8, the Pope will celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord as usual, by offering Mass in the Sistine Chapel, where he will baptize several babies.

Before the Christmas liturgical celebrations were to get under way, the Pope was to hold two general audiences, on Dec. 14 and 21, and deliver his customary Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia.


Vatican Nativity Scene

The Vatican Nativity scene this year, a gift from the Archdiocese of Malta and the Maltese government, includes a traditional Maltese boat, the Izzu, which, according to the artists, represents not only Maltese tradition, but also the plight of refugees who cross the Mediterranean fleeing war and poverty.

The crib is also decorated with a cross from the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia, Italy. The basilica was one of dozens of churches destroyed in the earthquakes that hit central Italy in August and October of this year. 

 At a Dec. 9 ceremony to unveil the life-size crib and Christmas tree — an 80-foot spruce from Trentino in northern Italy — Pope Francis urged the faithful to allow themselves to be attracted to the message of the Gospel “with the spirit of children.”

If we allow this, Francis encouraged, “we understand God’s goodness and contemplate his mercy, which was made human flesh to tenderize our eyes.”

The Pope said he had a “special thought” for the children who decorated the tree: They all are suffering with cancer. “The colored spheres you created depict the values of life, of love and of peace, which Christ proposes to us again every year,” he said.

Referring to the plight of migrants, the Pope said that, in the “painful experience of these brothers and sisters, we see again that of the Baby Jesus, who at the moment of birth did not find lodging and was born in a cave of Bethlehem.”

“The crib and the tree,” Francis stressed, “are a message of hope and of love, and they help to create a favorable Christmas atmosphere to live with faith the mystery of the Birth of the Redeemer, who came on earth with simplicity and meekness.”

Pope Francis concluded by thanking those present and expressing his wish that they and all the inhabitants of their lands spend “the Lord’s Birth with serenity and intensity.”

The Vatican’s life-size Nativity scenes, an annual tradition begun by Pope St. John Paul II, are a significant undertaking, often taking two to three weeks to construct, and can contain sound and running water. They usually remain in St. Peter’s Square for about a month after Christmas, almost until Ash Wednesday.

The Vatican announced Dec. 12 that last year’s crib was to be set up in the cloister of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Dec. 24 — an express wish of the Holy Father. The display was created by the people of Trentino, and around 100 people from the Italian city planned to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to witness the presentation of the gift on Christmas Eve.


Papal Christmas Card

The Nativity scene on the Pope’s Christmas card this year is that of Giotto’s 14th-century fresco of the Nativity in Assisi, accompanied by a verse from Isaiah on its reverse. The 1313 masterpiece, located in the lower Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, is the only one of its kind in the world where a Nativity scene has two baby Jesuses to express the human and divine nature of Christ. Also significant in the painting is the adoration of 28 angels, most of whom are praying. The verse is an abridged version of Isaiah 9:5: “For a Child will be born to us, Prince of Peace.”

Edward Pentin is the Rome correspondent for the Register.

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