Pope Francis celebrated Christmas Eve Mass before an estimated 2,000 people in St. Peter’s Basilica on Friday, going ahead with the service despite the resurgence in COVID-19 cases that has prompted a new vaccine mandate for Vatican employees. A maskless Francis processed down the central aisle as the Sistine Chapel choir sang "Noel," kicking off the Vatican's Christmas holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. In his homily, Francis urged the faithful to focus on the "littleness" of Jesus, the AP reports, and remember that he came into the world poor, without even a proper crib.
"That is where God is, in littleness," Francis said. "This is the message: God does not rise up in grandeur, but lowers himself into littleness. Littleness is the path that he chose to draw near to us, to touch our hearts, to save us, and to bring us back to what really matters." Attendance on Friday was limited to about 2,000 people, far more than the 200 allowed in 2020 when Italy was in a full Christmas lockdown. But the number is a fraction of the capacity of St. Peter's, which can seat up to 20,000 and in pre-pandemic times would be packed for one of the most popular Vatican liturgies of the year.
The Midnight Mass actually began at 7:30pm, a nod to the 85-year-old pope’s endurance and a holdover from last year, when the service had to end before Italy's nationwide COVID-19 curfew. No curfew is in place this year, but cases this week have surged even beyond 2020 levels. With the arrival of the omicron variant in Italy, the Vatican on Thursday imposed a more complete vaccine mandate on all staff. Francis is believed to have received the third booster shot, as has emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Francis has said vaccination is an "act of love," and he has called for wealthier countries to provide the shots to the developing world.
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