Pope Francis baptized babies in the Sistine Chapel on Sunday for the first time since the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
The pope baptized 16 babies — seven boys and nine girls — on Jan. 9, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, a year after he was forced to cancel the annual event due to COVID-19.
In a brief, off-the-cuff homily beneath Michelangelo’s depiction of the Last Judgment, the pope said that in baptism children received their Christian identity.
“And you, parents and godparents, must guard this identity,” he said. “This is your task throughout your lives: to guard the Christian identity of your children. It is a daily commitment: to make them grow with the light that they will receive today.”
On Jan. 12, 2020, Pope Francis baptized 32 infants — 17 boys and 15 girls. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11 that year.
In 2021, newborns eligible to be baptized in the Sistine Chapel received the sacrament in their home parishes instead.
Today I could not celebrate Baptisms in the Sistine Chapel, as is customary. I am praying for all the children who at this time are receiving Baptism, the Christian identity, the grace of forgiveness and of redemption.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) January 10, 2021
The pope concelebrated the live-streamed Mass on Sunday with the papal almoner Cardinal Konrad Krajewski and Archbishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, president of the Governorate of Vatican City State.
In 2020, the pope celebrated the liturgy “ad orientem,” or facing east, at the Sistine Chapel’s original altar directly beneath the “Last Judgment.” But this year, he offered the Mass “versus populum,” or facing the congregation, at an altar a few steps in front of the older one.
Throughout the Mass, the singing of the Sistine Chapel choir vied with the babies’ cries.
As in previous years, the pope told parents not to worry if their babies made loud noises during the ceremony.
He said: “This ceremony is a bit long, the children then feel strange here in an environment they do not know. Please, they are the protagonists: make sure that they are not too hot, that they feel comfortable...”
“And if they are hungry, feed them quietly here, in front of the Lord, no problem. And if they cry out, let them cry out, because they have a community spirit, let’s say a ‘band spirit,’ a spirit of ensemble, and all it takes is for one to start — because everyone is musical — and immediately the orchestra comes!”
“Let them cry quietly, let them feel free. But let them not feel too hot, and if they are hungry, don’t let them remain hungry.”
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes baptism as the “basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit ... and the door which gives access to the other sacraments.”
St. John Paul II began the papal tradition of baptizing children in the Sistine Chapel on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 11, 1981.
The ceremony initially took place in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace but was moved to the Sistine Chapel in 1983.
The event was reserved at first to babies of Swiss Guards but later expanded to include the children of Vatican employees.
To qualify, children have to be under one year of age and their parents must be married in the Church. Each child is accompanied in the Sistine Chapel by its parents, siblings, godfather, and godmother.
The family groups attend a rehearsal before the ceremony. During the event, the Vatican provides baby-changing tables in a nearby room in the Apostolic Palace.