VATICAN CITY — The Vatican recently updated its calendar of Pope Benedict’s liturgical celebrations through January 2009, and confirmed that, as in previous years, the 81-year-old pontiff will preside over a full slate of Christmas activities.
The pre-Christmas season begins when the pope celebrates evening prayer Nov. 29 in St. Peter’s Basilica on the vigil of the first Sunday of Advent. A more popular ceremony, at least among the Romans, occurs Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, when the pope will say a prayer and lay a basket of flowers before a statue of Mary next to the Spanish Steps in downtown Rome.
Thanks to a satellite feed that now reaches more than 70 countries, the world will tune in when the pope celebrates Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and delivers his urbi et orbi blessing — to the city (urbi) and to the world (orbi) — on Christmas Day from the central balcony of the basilica’s facade.
On New Year’s Eve, the pope will return to St. Peter’s to lead evening prayer and sing a hymn of thanksgiving for 2008. Then on New Year’s Day, he’ll celebrate Mass in the basilica to mark the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, and the 42nd World Day of Peace. On Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, he will preside over another major liturgy.
Pope Benedict, maintaining a tradition of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, will baptize infants during a Mass in the Sistine Chapel Jan. 11, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It’s the one day of the year the Sistine guards don’t shush people, and crying babies usually out-decibel the Sistine Chapel Choir.
The calendar contains two somewhat out-of-the-ordinary celebrations. The first comes Nov. 30, when the pope makes a pastoral visit and celebrates Mass at the Rome Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, on the occasion of the 1,750th anniversary of St. Lawrence’s martyrdom.
The second will take place Jan. 25 at the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, when the pope leads evening prayer on the feast of St. Paul’s conversion. What makes this celebration unusual is that it comes during the jubilee year dedicated to St. Paul, which commemorates the 2,000th anniversary of the saint’s birth.