God is always with us — says Pope Francis in virus-gloom Christmas Eve Mass
Even at the worst of times, Christians should have faith in God, Pope Francis said in a sombre pandemic-era Christmas Eve Mass with a reduced audience and other anti-coronavirus mitigations.
The service in St Peter's Basilica started two hours earlier than normal, at 7:30 pm (1830 GMT), so that it could finish before Italian curfew rules kick in at 10 pm.
"God always loves us with a greater love than we have for ourselves. That is his secret for entering our hearts," Francis said in a homily.
At Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God.
"Yes, God came into the world as a child to make us children of God. What a magnificent gift! This day, God amazes us and says to each of us: 'You are amazing'," the pope said.
Francis said Jesus was born in poverty, even if "he deserved to be born as the greatest of kings in the finest of palaces," to "tell us that every outcast is a child of God."
Around 200 members of the clergy and the public attended the Mass, rather than the usual several thousand. They sat physically distanced, wearing masks, but the pope did not.
Before the service, Francis sent messages to the people of Lebanon and to the leaders of South Sudan, wishing both troubled countries peace and stability, and reaffirming his desire to visit them.
This year, Lebanon was shaken by a massive blast in its capital, Beirut, which killed more than 180 people and inflamed a pre-existing economic and coronavirus-related health crisis.
Meanwhile, South Sudan is struggling to consolidate a national unity government deal signed in February, as violence persists between ethnic groups.
The Vatican also said Francis would not address crowds in St Peter's Square on Christmas Day with the "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and to the world) blessings from the central balcony of the basilica.
The Urbi et Orbi usually involves pleadings for world peace.
The blessings were instead due to be imparted from inside the Apostolic Palace, and streamed online. The same applies to Angelus messages scheduled for December 26 and 27, and January 1, 3 and 6.
The Vatican is doing its best to protect the 84-year-old pontiff from infection risks, especially after two cardinals close to him tested positive for the coronavirus in the last few days.
On Sunday, Francis told the faithful they should not be "complaining about what we cannot do due to the pandemic," but rather think about those "who have less."
"[Let us not have] the umpteenth gift for ourselves and our friends, but for a person in need whom no one thinks of," he said, lamenting how consumerism "has stolen Christmas."