St Peter's Square [Photo: Vatican News]

Pope Francis will not lead New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day services because of a flare-up of his sciatica condition, which causes pain in his right leg, the Vatican said yesterday.

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It was believed to be the first time since he became pope in 2013 that Francis, who turned 84 this month, will have skipped leading a major papal event for health reasons. A year-end vespers service the pope was to lead yesterday was led by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, and the Friday Mass, marking the Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, will be said by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State.

Both the vespers and the Mass require the main celebrant to stand for most of the service. The pope will, however, lead his noon prayer today as scheduled, the Vatican said. Because of coronavirus restrictions in Italy, both the vespers and Mass are being held from a secondary altar in St Peter’s Basilica, with only about 200 people instead of the 10,000 the basilica holds.

Francis suffers from sciatica, a condition that causes pain that radiates from the lower back along the sciatic nerve, to the lower part of the body. He is sometimes seen walking with difficulty and receives regular physical therapy.

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In March last year, a cold kept him from a week-long Lenten retreat with his with senior aides south of Rome. In 2014, a year after he was elected pope, Francis was forced to cancel several engagements because of what was believed to be a stomach ailment. That year he skipped walking in a Lenten procession because of leg pain. His health has, however, been generally good.