The Holy Father did give the homily, calling us to experience gratitude-filled awe at the 'mystery of reality' - the reality that Jesus is here with us.
To everyone’s surprise, Pope Francis did not preside over the celebrations of Vespers and the Te Deum on December 31, 2021, in thanksgiving for the past year. While the liturgical booklet indicated the Holy Father would preside, instead he was seated in the front row of St. Peter’s Basilica. He did, however, deliver the homily, in which he invited everyone to truly marvel at the mystery of Jesus’ birth so that tomorrow will not be like yesterday.
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, replaced Pope Francis in presiding over the celebrations. The Vatican press office was not able to give an explanation for the change.
The Pope’s seat was moved a few moments before the beginning of the service. He also was wearing a mask, which is unusual for him. (The Pope had a portion of one lung removed when he was a young man due to a life-threatening infection.)
Perhaps limping a little more than usual, he went to the ambo to deliver his homily. He returned to his seat and remained seated for most of the service.
Last year, Pope Francis was unable to attend Vespers and the Te Deum because of “painful sciatica.”
The Holy Father usually walks with a quite notable limp as he suffers from sciatica, a condition usually caused by compression of a nerve in the back. Sciatica usually causes intense pain in the back and one leg, and already in the first year of his papacy, the Pope spoke about it giving him trouble. “Sciatica is very painful, very painful! I don’t wish it on anyone!” he said, returning from the World Youth Day in Brazil.
Christmas is not just an emotion
“You can’t celebrate Christmas without wonder,” Pope Francis began, who gave the homily without notes. He insisted that the wonder of Jesus’ birth should not be limited to simple emotion, “or worse, to a consumerist frenzy.” Because then “nothing will change: tomorrow will be like yesterday, next year will be like last year,” he warned.
Christian wonder does not come from “special effects,” from “fantastic worlds,” but “from the mystery of reality,” the Pope underlined, assuring that there is nothing more marvelous and amazing than the reality of the incarnation of Jesus.
In the pandemic, solidarity comes from God
In his last address of 2021, Pope Francis returned to the pandemic that has exacerbated feelings of “helplessness” around the world. “After an initial phase of reaction, in which we felt united in the same boat, the temptation of ‘every man for himself’ became widespread. But thank God we reacted again, with a sense of responsibility.”
The 266th Pontiff said that “we can and must say ‘thank you to God,’ because the choice of responsibility in solidarity does not come from the world: it comes from God.”
Uncertainties about January 1 celebrations
On January 1, Pope Francis is scheduled to preside at 10 a.m. Mass for the feast of Mary, Mother of God, and the 55th World Day of Peace.
At noon, he is to recite the Angelus prayer from the window of the Apostolic Palace and deliver a short catechesis on this occasion.
After the last-minute change to the December 31 celebrations, it is not impossible that the 85-year-old pontiff will not preside over the first Mass of the year 2022. Last year, the Vatican announced on December 31 that the Pope would not be able to attend New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebrations in St. Peter’s Basilica due to sciatica.