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Pope Francis gives an early Christmas Eve homily with a pointed message on humility

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

With COVID cases surging in Italy, Pope Francis led Christmas Eve mass in St. Peter's Basilica hours earlier than normal. The pope's homily focused on the need to be close to the poor and needy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has our report.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Italian).

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: It's Christmas in the time of coronavirus. What was normally known as midnight mass began at 7:30 p.m. COVID cases in Italy are surging above last year's levels, with a new pandemic record Friday of more than 50,000 new cases. In St. Peter's, some 2,000 people, all wearing masks, attended the solemn ceremony - one-tenth the basilica's capacity.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Italian).

POGGIOLI: Pope Francis, who turned 85 last week and who underwent intestinal surgery five months ago, appeared in good health, although he seemed to limp more than usual.

The themes of Francis's Christmas Eve homily reflect some of the cornerstones of his papacy - the need for humility and that serving others is more important than seeking status and social visibility. And on this of all days, it bears noting, he said, that Jesus Christ was born among the forgotten ones of the peripheries.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: He comes where human dignity is put to the test, the pope said. He comes to ennoble the excluded, and he first reveals himself to them, Francis added, not to educate it in important people, but to poor, working people. This is a message, the pope said, that we rediscover and value the little things in life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: If he is present there, what else do we need? - Francis said. Let us stop pining for a grandeur that is not ours to have. Let us put aside our complaints and our gloomy faces, the pope added, and the greed that never satisfies. The pope also quoted a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Who has not found the heaven below will fail of it above.

The themes of the homily echoed the pope's tough love Christmas address Thursday to Vatican administrators. Cardinals and bishops sat stone-faced as Francis took them to task for what he described as their moral failings. He warned them against falling prey to what he calls spiritual worldliness, which, he said, unlike all other temptations, is hard to unmask for it is concealed by everything that usually reassures us - our role, the liturgy, doctrine and religious devotion.

The pope's words to the administrators and bureaucrats and in his Christmas Eve homily to the Catholic faithful are a reminder of his ambitious project to reform and revitalize the Catholic Church through decentralization and by making it less clerical and promoting more participation of the laity - a project that's encountering increasing resistance from the small but very vocal conservative and traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Italian).

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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