VATICAN CITY, Holy See – Pope Francis did not preside over New Year’s Eve vespers at St Peter’s Basilica as planned on Friday, although he delivered the homily.

Giovanni Battista Re, the dean of the College of Cardinals, led the service while the 85-year-old pontiff, wearing a mask, spent most of it seated on the sidelines.

Asked about the change, just three hours after Vatican had confirmed the pope’s presiding role, a spokesman said simply that Francis wanted the cardinal to preside over the celebration.

Last year, the pontiff was unable to celebrate New Year’s masses because of sciatica, a chronic nerve condition that causes pain in his hip and from which he has long suffered.

Traditionally, the pope visits the Nativity Scene in St Peter’s Square after the end-of-year vespers but the event was scrapped Friday over concern that coronavirus could spread among gathered crowds.

As elsewhere in Europe, Italy — and by extension the tiny Vatican City State — is facing a surge in coronavirus cases fuelled by the new Omicron variant.