Back pain causes pope to skip Vatican New Year's ceremonies

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Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re celebrates First Vespers and Te Deum, the rite of thanksgiving for the end of the year, in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. The Vatican released a statement this morning saying that due to a painful sciatica, Pope Francis would not attend the Vespers in St. Peters today and the 9gmt Mass tomorrow morning as scheduled. (Fabio Frustaci/pool via AP)

VATICAN CITY – A back condition has forced Pope Francis to skip New Year’s ceremonies at St. Peter's Basilica, a Vatican spokesman said Thursday.

Francis was suffering from “painful sciatica” and could not preside at an hour-long, year-end prayer service Thursday evening, spokesman Matteo Bruni said. The pope also won’t celebrate Mass in the basilica n New Year’s Day for the same reason, he said.

Francis has spoken openly about his sciatica in the past. It is a form of pain in the lower body caused by compression or irritation on nerve roots or on the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower spine down the thigh.

Bruni said Francis still plans to deliver his scheduled New Year's blessing at noon Friday during an appearance in the library of the Apostolic Palace.

The pontiff already had prepared his homily for New Year's Eve. A Vatican cardinal filling in for him read it aloud during the evening vespers service.

The service traditionally gives thanks for the year just ending. In his homily, Francis wondered if it “seems forced to thank God at the end of a year such as this, marked by the pandemic.”

"Thoughts go to the families who have lost one or more family members. We think of those who had been ill, to all those who suffered loneliness, to those who lost jobs,'' Francis wrote in the homily, delivered by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the dean of the College of Cardinals.

Francis encouraged Roman Catholic faithful trying to make sense out of 2020 to banish any idea that God is “cynical and pitiless."