Francis, ushering in the ninth Christmas of his pontificate, celebrated a solemn vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica for about 2,000 people, with participation restricted by COVID-19 to about a fifth of the size of pre-pandemic years.
Minutes before the Christmas Eve Mass started, Italy reported a second successive record daily tally of COVID-19 cases, with new infections hitting 50,599.
Francis, wearing white vestments, wove his homily the around the theme that Jesus was born with nothing.
"Brothers and sisters, standing before the crib, we contemplate what is central, beyond all the lights and decorations, which are beautiful. We contemplate the child," he said in the homily of the Mass con-celebrated with more than 200 cardinals, bishops and priests.
Francis, who turned 85 last week, said the baby Jesus born in poverty should remind people that serving others is more important than seeking status or social visibility or spending a lifetime in pursuit of success.
On Saturday, Francis will deliver his twice-yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing and message from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.