Justin McLellan
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — With song, cake and circus performers, Pope Francis celebrated his 87th birthday in festive style at the Vatican.

As in previous years, the pope spent his birthday Dec. 17 in the Paul VI Audience Hall with the children of those assisted by the Vatican’s “Santa Marta” pediatric dispensary, which gives medical supplies to families in need.

As soon as Pope Francis entered the room, one girl couldn’t help but stand up and give the pope a hug. The children held up signs wishing Pope Francis happy birthday in Italian, sang to him and watched performers pull off acrobatic stunts, twirl plates and do tricks with hula hoops as the pope watched along laughing and applauding. Seated alongside him for the show was Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner.

“For being able to see you, so many girls and boys, everyone here, thank you,” the pope said to the children. “We have to prepare for a big party which will be next week: Christmas, the party in which we think of and remember when Jesus came to be with us.”

Pope Francis asked the children to prepare their hearts for Christmas and for receiving Jesus. “Everyone think,” he told them, “what will I ask Jesus? What will I ask Jesus this Christmas?”

He encouraged the children to think about their wish with their eyes closed in silence and to ask Jesus for it later.

A white cake decorated with an illustration of Pope Francis and children was then rolled out to the pope. After the children gathered around the cake and sang “Happy Birthday” to “Papa Francesco,” the pope blew out the lone candle and encouraged the children to steal a bit of icing with their finger.

Earlier in the day, Pope Francis prayed the Angelus with some 22,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square. A group of children held up banners reading “Happy Birthday, Best Wishes Pope Francis.” After the pope gave the final blessing the crowd began singing “Happy Birthday” to the pope in Italian.

Also present in the square was a giant figure of the infant Jesus in a manger. Many in St. Peter’s Square had their own infant Jesus figures in hand to be blessed by the pope, following an Italian custom of bringing to church the Jesus figure that will be placed in the Nativity scene for a blessing before Christmas.

“I ask that you pray before the Nativity scene for children who will experience a difficult Christmas in places where there is war, in refugee camps, in situations of profound misery,” the pope said after blessing the figures. “Thank you for doing this, and Merry Christmas to all of you and your families.”

Pope Francis is joined on his 87th birthday by children assisted at the Vatican’s pediatric clinic in the Paul VI Hall Dec. 17, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)