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Pope Francis prays for pandemic end on Christmas as COVID-19 cases surge in Italy

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By Euronews  with AP, Reuters
Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass, at St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican
Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass, at St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

 Pope Francis prayed Saturday for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, using his Christmas Day address to urge health care for all, vaccines for the poor and for dialogue to prevail in resolving the world’s conflicts.

Only a few thousand people flocked to a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square for Francis’ annual “Urbi et Orbi” ("To the city and the world") Christmas address. Normally, the square would be packed with tens of thousands of holiday well-wishers.

Italy’s 2020 holiday lockdown forced Francis to deliver a televised address from inside the Apostolic Palace to prevent crowds from forming in the square. 

Although Italy this week counted more than 50,000 cases in a single day for the first time, the government has not ordered another lockdown.

In his speech, Francis lamented ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, newly flaring tensions in Ukraine and Ethiopia, and an “unprecedented crisis" in Lebanon.

“We have become so used to [conflicts] that immense tragedies are now being passed over in silence; we risk not hearing the cry of pain and distress of so many of our brothers and sisters,” he said from the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica as Swiss Guards stood at attention in the square below.

Francis warned of the pandemic tendency to withdraw and isolate, urging instead dialogue to try to resolve the world conflicts. 

He prayed in particular for those most affected by the virus, including women and children who have suffered increased abuse during lockdowns.

On Friday night, Pope Francis celebrated Christmas Eve Mass before about 2,000 people in St. Peter’s Basilica, going ahead with the service despite the resurgence in COVID-19 cases prompting a new vaccine mandate for Vatican employees.

In his homily, Francis urged the faithful to focus on the “littleness” of Jesus, 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.”

Francis also asked the faithful to remember and honour the poor.

"On this night of love, may we have only one fear: that of offending God's love, hurting him by despising the poor with our indifference. Jesus loves them dearly, and one day they will welcome us to heaven," he declared.

Attendance on Friday was limited to about 2,000 people, far more than the 200 allowed in 2020.

St. Peter’s Basilica 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 traditional midnight mass actually began at 7:30 pm – a hold-over from last year, when the service had to end before Italy’s nationwide COVID-19 curfew.

No curfew is in place this year.

With the arrival of the Omicron variant in Italy, the Vatican secretary of state on Thursday imposed a new vaccine mandate on all Vatican staff, extending it to all employees except those who have recovered from the coronavirus.

Previously, only employees who dealt with the public directly had to be vaccinated, such as staff at the Vatican Museums and the Swiss Guards, while others could access their offices with regular testing.

Francis, who is missing part of one lung and had intestinal surgery in July, has largely eschewed masks, even when greeting prelates and the general public.

“I’m not worried because first of all I have a mask on, and I’ve had my third dose so I feel relaxed,” said Franco Pasquali, a Rome resident attending the service.

“The problem is those who don’t vaccinate, that’s all.”

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.