Vatican Cancels Public Advent and Christmas Liturgies Amid COVID Surge

Just as he did during Lent and Easter, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass before a limited number of people.

Pope Francis gave his Urbi et Orbi" (to the City and to the World) address and Christmas blessing from the central loggia of St. Peter's Basilica on the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, Dec. 25, 2019.
Pope Francis gave his Urbi et Orbi" (to the City and to the World) address and Christmas blessing from the central loggia of St. Peter's Basilica on the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, Dec. 25, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/EWTN News)

VATICAN CITY — As happened during Holy Week this year, liturgical celebrations in St. Peter’s Basilica over Christmas, such as midnight Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, will be limited to a select group of faithful and live-streamed to the faithful amid concerns over a surge of COVID-19 cases. 

The Vatican quietly announced at the end of October that liturgical celebrations in St. Peter’s in the “coming months” would have “very limited participation of the faithful,” in compliance with “foreseen protective measures, barring changes due to health risks.”

The announcement, given at the end of a short, emailed statement to journalists about arrangements for papal Masses for the dead in early November, coincided with a return to the Pope’s weekly audiences being livestreamed from the library of the apostolic palace. 

It also followed an Oct. 22 memorandum sent by the Secretariat of State to members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, which stated that due to the “serious international health situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Christmas liturgical celebrations, presided by the Holy Father, will take place in the Vatican in private without the presence of members of the diplomatic corps.” 

The memorandum added that the liturgies would be “transmitted live on the official site of Vatican News.” 

The news of the restrictions, coming almost two full months before Christmas, surprised some of the faithful in Rome who have been largely able to attend liturgies with moderate restrictions over the last six months. 


No Official Changes in Rome

Although civil restrictions have tightened considerably in Rome in recent weeks (the city remains in what the government declares is a lower-risk “yellow zone” but masks must still be worn outdoors, restaurants and bars must shut at 6pm and a curfew is imposed from 10pm until 5am), no official changes to worship have been made since post-lockdown protocols came into effect on May 7.

Italy’s government, which has enforced a series of “red zones” (areas essentially under lockdown that include Lombardi, Campania and Tuscany), is currently weighing the possibility of enforcing further rules on the rest of the country. Christmas in Italy will be “different but not canceled,” government sources told the Italian news agency ANSA this week. 

Italy’s bishops are therefore reportedly concerned that the government will impose a further suspension on public Masses, as happened during Holy Week. Already tested by the restrictions, economically and otherwise, the bishops had been hoping the government would relax some of the May 7 protocols, for example, by increasing the maximum number of people who can take part in Mass, which is currently limited to 200 people, but that now seems unlikely. 

The Church has already reintroduced choirs and no longer mandates ministers to wear disposable gloves when distributing Holy Communion, or that priests wear them for baptismal anointings or the anointing of the sick.  

The bishops also reportedly want to avoid the sort of clash it had with the government in April when they complained of an “arbitrary exclusion of religious ceremonies” as the lockdown was lifted. Their appeal was followed a few days later by comments from Pope Francis who called for “prudence and obedience” to the rules.

On Nov. 4, the Holy Father urged the faithful to respect authorities’ rules on the COVID crisis as the Vatican decided that his weekly general audience should return to being held in an empty Apostolic Library and streamed over the internet. 

“Sadly, we have had to return to this audience in the library, and that is to defend ourselves from COVID contagion,” Francis said. “This teaches us, also, that we must be very attentive to the rules of the authorities, whether they be political or health, to defend ourselves from this pandemic.”


Stricter Regulations in Europe

As fears of a “second wave” of the virus grow, various countries have lately imposed considerably stricter restrictions on worship than Italy, with public Masses suspended — though churches are allowed to remain open for prayer — during a month-long lockdown in England, which ends at the beginning of December. It followed a similar situation in France. In Ireland priests reportedly could have been jailed if they were caught celebrating public Mass, although the government later denied this. 

The faithful have waged resistance to the measures in each of those countries, including a relatively strong statement from the bishops of England and Wales who said they had “profound misgivings” about the rules, and asked the government to produce evidence to show that banning worship had any effect on contagion. 

The restrictions have been more mixed in the United States, with some states being more stringent than others, and bishops enforcing varying degrees of restrictive measures on worship and Sunday obligation exemptions. 

Father Paul Haffner, a professor of systematic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and Duquesne University’s Rome campus, noted the inconsistency in the rules. 

Author of a 2016 book, The Sacramental Mystery, Father Haffner wondered how, “if you can go do essential shopping in supermarkets to keep your body alive, how is it that an equal human right, which is access to the spiritual, divine life, should be denied?” He pointed out recent research in England showing supermarkets were linked to the most positive cases of COVID infection.

Access to the sacraments during an emergency, even if it has been invoked “in a dubious manner,” is a human rights issue, Father Haffner said, adding that spiritual communion is recommended if restrictions prevent being able to get to Mass. 

Sometimes sacraments such as confession can be received through a “perfect act of contrition” if one has no access to a priest, he said, but added: “There’s no real substitute for receiving the real sacrament.”

Father Haffner cautioned that excessive limits which lead to the complete denial of the sacraments due to fear of spreading the coronavirus seems unnecessary. “You can have some limitations, it’s possible, but these shouldn’t go on very long,” he said. A trained scientist, Father Haffner said he saw the Vatican’s instructions on Christmas liturgies as a “prudential decision” as conditions could be “right for the coronavirus to be very much alive” when the weather’s a little colder. 


Obligation Temporarily Lifted

In many parts of the world, the Church’s obligation to attend Mass on Sunday has been temporarily lifted, with some bishops dispensing of the requirement until Ash Wednesday next year. 

Given the risks, Father Haffner is not opposed to lifting the Sunday obligation as long as the day is given over to the Lord in some way. He pointed out that some might, in any case, legally attend Mass on a Sunday and not be in mortal sin, but then afterwards “do all sorts of things which have nothing to do with the Sunday at all.”

The Church teaches that Sunday Mass remains a serious obligation for the faithful. Pope St. John Paul II wrote, in Dies Domini, his 1993 apostolic letter on keeping the Lord’s day holy, “even if in the earliest times it was not judged necessary to be prescriptive, the Church has not ceased to confirm this obligation of conscience, which rises from the inner need felt so strongly by the Christians of the first centuries.” 

He added it was “only later, faced with the half-heartedness or negligence of some, that the Church had to make explicit the duty to attend Sunday Mass.” This was usually done through an exhortation, but also through “canonical precepts.” 

John Paul added that this was the case in a number of “local councils” from the fourth century onwards (the Council of Elvira of 300 did not speak of an obligation but of “penalties after three absences”). “These decrees of local Councils led to a universal practice, the obligatory character of which was taken as something quite normal,” John Paul wrote. 

The present Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church also reiterate the importance of the Sunday obligation, with the catechism calling it the “foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.” 

“Christ told us, ‘Give to God what is God's, and to Caesar what is Caesar’s,’ and the commandment to love God above all, and to keep the Sabbath as a part of one's worship, remain forever valid,” stressed Dominican Father Ezra Sullivan, professor of moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. “No civil power has the right wholly to stop a Christian from worshipping God,” he added, “and Christians should not obey unreasonable commands in that regard. 

“Because the sacraments, especially holy Mass, are the highest forms of worshiping God, Catholics should always strive to participate personally and physically in holy Mass on Sundays, for this is an obligation, a right to be exercised, and a gift to be enjoyed,” he said. 

Father Haffner pointed out prayer in addition to the sacraments was also vital. In other historical pandemics, he said “there was really fervent, loving prayer, that the Lord and Our Lady would respond with a miracle.” He added that his message to the faithful, therefore, is to ask themselves: “Are we praying hard enough? Are we begging Him very hard so that the human suffering can be alleviated?”


Vatican’s Nativity Scene

Even though the Vatican liturgies will be affected this Christmas, the usual traditions of a Nativity scene and Christmas tree will go ahead as normal this year. 

The Nativity scene will originate from Castelli, a place famous for its ceramics over four centuries in the mountainous Abruzzi region near Rome. It will have a contemporary and unconventional look, “with strong references to the history of ancient art, Greek, Sumerian and Egyptian art,” the Vatican announced (see what it will look like here). 

“This year even more than usual, the setting up of the traditional space dedicated to Christmas in St. Peter's Square aims to be a sign of hope and trust for the whole world,” the Vatican said, adding that it wishes to “express the certainty that Jesus comes among his people to save and console them — an important message during this difficult time due to the Covid-19 health emergency.” 

The decorated tree, measuring nearly 100 feet high, will this year come from Slovenia.