Christians celebrate subdued Christmas amid pandemic

LONDON — Pope Francis led a small and somber midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as Christians around the world celebrated a Christmas Day like no other.

With many religious celebrations severely toned down or cancelled by the coronavirus this year, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics celebrated the birth of Jesus with a candlelit service attended by fewer than 100 people, plus a choir and a handful of cardinals — many wearing masks. Christmas Mass is usually a huge occasion attended by up to 10,000 people.

Italy, which has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, is under a nationwide lockdown. Church bells still rang out but the Midnight Mass began two hours earlier, so those attending could return home by a 10 p.m. curfew.

Surrounded by rows of red poinsettia plants, Francis, 84, returned to a common theme and urged the faithful to help the poor and marginalized, and underscored that Jesus was born an outcast.

“God came among us in poverty and need, to tell us that in serving the poor, we will show our love for him,” he said in his homily. He also warned the faithful not to pursue “our endless desire for possessions.”

On Friday, he will read his Christmas message to the world from a hall inside the Vatican, instead of from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Square, an event that usually attracts tens of thousands of people.

Similar subdued scenes were repeated across the world as festive family gatherings and packed prayers, were scaled back or canceled.

In London’s historic Westminster Cathedral, Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols said the pandemic had shaken “our comfortable assumptions” this year, with many deprived of hugs and handshakes, loneliness rife and others hospitalized by the virus. Yet, “light penetrates this present darkness,” he told congregants.

“Random kindness, quiet heroism, selfless service,” had broken through, he added.

Meanwhile in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus and the nativity scene, small groups ushered in Christmaswith marching bands, bagpipes and a large Christmas tree in Manger Square.

“Despite the restrictions and limitations we want to celebrate as much as possible, with family, community and joy,” said Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who himself contracted the virus and recovered. “We want to offer hope.”

Thousands of foreign pilgrims usually flock to the Holy Landfor the celebrations. But the closure of Israel’s international airport to foreign tourists, along with Palestinian restrictions banning intercity travel in the areas they administer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, kept visitors away.

In Australia, worshippers had to book tickets online to attend socially distanced church services. The Philippines prohibited mass gatherings, while traditional door-to-door children’s carols were canceled in Greece.

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In Paris for the first time since a 2019 fire that nearly destroyed it, the Notre-Dame cathedral played host to a Christmas Eve choral concert, an annual French tradition but this time without an audience or congregants.

The singers wore construction hard hats and boiler suits, as the Gothic cathedral is still being rebuilt. They performed classical pieces by Mozart and Schubert and a more light-hearted rendition of “Jingle Bells.”

But not all Christians have agreed to make concessions to the pandemic. Over Easter, a number of high-profile American pastors gained attention when they refused to close down church services in Florida and California, despite high levels of coronavirus transmission.

One pastor who leads a weekly bible study group for members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet appeared to blame the pandemic on several groups, saying the virus was the consequential wrath of God.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.