As rumblings and grumblings grew in the press and on social media, the permanent council of the Italian bishops’ conference met to discuss the problem of Christmas “midnight Mass” when the government has imposed a 10pm curfew as part of its measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Since late November, bishops, theologians and others have pointed out that what commonly is called “midnight Mass” is liturgically called “Mass during the night” and that anticipating its celebration, even by several hours, will not ruin Christmas.
But the controversy continued.
The bishops’ permanent council recently met online to discuss the issue. In a statement the next day, they emphasised “the necessity to determine the beginning and the length of the celebration at a time compatible with the curfew.”
As of writing, the Vatican had not announced the time of Pope Francis’ Christmas Mass on 24th December, although there were rumours that it would begin at 7:30pm so that the few people allowed to attend could be home before 10pm. Already in October, the Vatican had announced that the liturgy would not be open to the public, but would be broadcast and livestreamed.
In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI moved the Vatican celebration from midnight to 10pm. Once Pope Francis was elected in 2013, the Mass was celebrated at 9:30pm.
During the spring lockdown, from 9th March to 18th May, Italy banned all celebrations of Mass with the faithful in attendance but allowed churches to stay open for private prayer.
Since May, using guidelines developed by the bishops and the government together, the number of people allowed at each Mass has been determined by the size of the church. People must wear masks at all times, use hand sanitiser as they enter and maintain social distancing. Communion is distributed only in the hand and choirs, while discouraged, are allowed if members are distanced from one another and are far from the congregation.
The Italian bishops asked Catholics to continue to follow those guidelines at Christmas.
Jesuit Fr Antonio Spadaro, director of the journal La Civilta Cattolica, wrote in an Italian newspaper on 1st December that “the symbolically important fact for the celebration of (Christmas) night is not the exact hour – whether it is midnight or another time – but the fact that it is celebrated when there is no light, when it’s dark out, precisely to make evident the symbolic meaning of the feast,” which is the light of Christ coming into the world.
“If one understands the reasoning,” he wrote, “one also would understand that if the celebration of Mass during the night takes place when it’s dark outside, but before midnight, it certainly won’t make Jesus be born early.”
Picture: Pope Francis picks up a figurine of the baby Jesus to carry in procession at the conclusion of Christmas Mass in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on 24th December 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring).