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Pope celebrates Christmas eve mass as virus emerges in Italy

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Pope celebrates Christmas eve mass as virus emerges in Italy

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ROME (AP) – Pope Francis celebrated Christmas Eve mass in front of around 2,000 people in St. Peter’s Basilica on Friday, continuing the service despite the resurgence of COVID-19 cases that prompted a new vaccine mandate for Vatican employees.

An unmasked Francis walked down the central aisle as the Sistine Chapel choir sang “Christmas,” marking the start of the Vatican Christmas holidays that commemorate the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. He remained maskless the entire shift.

In his homily, Francis urged the faithful to focus on the “littleness” of Jesus and to remember that he came into the world poor, without even a real manger.

“This is where God is, in littleness,” Francis said. “Here is the message: God does not rise in greatness, but humbles himself in smallness. Smallness is the path he chose to draw closer to us, touch our hearts, save us and bring us back to what really matters.

Attendance was limited to around 2,000 on Friday, far more than the 200 allowed in 2020 when Italy was in full Christmas shutdown. But the number is a fraction of the capacity of St.Peter, which can accommodate up to 20,000 people and which in pre-pandemic times would be jam-packed for one of the most popular Vatican liturgies in the year.

The ‘midnight mass’ actually started at 7:30 p.m., a nod to the endurance of the 85-year-old Pope and a delay from last year, when the service was due to end before the national COVID curfew. -19 in Italy.

No curfew is in place this year, but cases this week have even surpassed 2020 levels. For the second day in a row, Italy on Friday set a new daily pandemic record with 50,599 new cases. Another 141 people died, bringing the official death toll in Italy to 136,386.

With the arrival of the omicrom 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 signed up. recovered from the coronavirus. Previously, only employees who dealt directly with the public had to be vaccinated, such as staff at the Vatican Museums and the Swiss Guards, while others could access their offices with regular testing.

The mandate does not apply to the faithful attending Mass, but they are required to wear masks. Those who attended Friday mass, as well as the priests, bishops and cardinals who concelebrated it, all wore masks. Francis, who is missing part of a lung and had bowel surgery in July, largely avoided masks, even when greeting prelates and the general public.

“I’m not worried because I first have a mask and have 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 would have received the third reminder, just like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Francis said immunization is an “act of love” and called on the richest countries to provide vaccines to the developing world.

Among those present at mass was Melissa Helland, an American tourist visiting Rome with her family.

“This is the first time in the past two years that we have been able to come together as a family and attend Mass because of the pandemic, so we are very excited and grateful,” she said before the start. of service.

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Francesco Sportelli and Luigi Navarro contributed from Vatican City.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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