By NICOLE WINFIELD
ROME (AP) — Pope Francis has celebrated Christmas Eve Mass before an estimated 2,000 people in St. Peter’s Basilica. He went ahead with the service despite the resurgence in COVID-19 cases that prompted a new vaccine mandate for Vatican employees .A maskless Francis processed down the central aisle of the basilica as the Sistine Chapel choir sang “Noel,” kicking off the Vatican’s Christmas holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Friday’s “Midnight Mass” actually began at 7:30 p.m., a nod to the 85-year-old pope’s endurance and a hold-over from last year, when the service had to end before Italy’s nationwide COVID-19 curfew. For the second day running, Italy on Friday registered a record in daily infections.