POPE Francis has sparked fears for his health after arriving for Christmas mass in a wheelchair and being unable to stand to deliver his sermon.
The sombre scene in St. Peter's Basilica comes just days after it emerged that Francis has written a resignation letter in case health issues leave him unable to perform his duties.
The Pope explained last week: "I signed it and said: ‘If I should become impaired for medical reasons or whatever, here is my resignation. Here you have it.'"
Francis, who turned 86 just days ago, had surgery last year to repair a bowel narrowing.
He has also been battling extreme knee pain since tearing a ligament, which has left him unable to stand for long periods.
Last month he told reporters he was "in a lot of pain" and was having regular physical therapy to try and alleviate the recurring issues with his leg.
Pope Francis kisses a statue of the baby Jesus while sitting in a wheelchair at the mass VATICAN MEDIA
Despite being forced to sit, the Pope used his Christmas address to launch a thinly-veiled attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking at the Vatican service, Francis lambasted those whose "greed and hunger" for power was such that some "wanted to consume even their neighbours".
The Pontiff is marking his 10th Christmas as leader of the world's Catholics.
As many as 4,000 people attended the service, the first time it has been filled to capacity since 2019, because of years of Covid restrictions.
Pope health latest: Francis sat during the service as a cardigan carried out much of the service VATICAN
And the Pope didn't hold back in his criticism of the Russian regime. He said: "Men and women in our world, in their hunger for wealth and power, consume even their neighbours, their brothers and sisters.
"How many wars have we seen! And in how many places, even today, are human dignity and freedom treated with contempt!"
Since Russia invaded it neighbour in February, Francis has spoken out against the war at nearly every public event, at least twice a week, denouncing what he has called atrocities and unprovoked aggression.
The Pope has said he will resign if his health deteriorates GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE
He did not specifically mention Ukraine, but he added: "As always, the principal victims of this human greed are the weak and the vulnerable," he said, denouncing "a world ravenous for money, power and pleasure..."
He added: "I think above all of the children devoured by war, poverty and injustice," also mentioning "unborn, poor and forgotten children".
Drawing a parallel between the infant Jesus born in a manger and the poverty of today, the Pope said: "In the manger of rejection and discomfort, God makes himself present. He comes there because there we see the problem of our humanity: the indifference produced by the greedy rush to possess and consume."
Because of the Pope's mobility issues, much of the service was delegated to a cardinal.
Earlier this month, the Pope urged people to spend less on Christmas celebrations and gifts and send the difference to Ukrainians to help them get through the winter.
Pope Francis used his Christmas sermon to attack Vladimir Putin GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE
Later today he will deliver his twice-year "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing and message from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to tens of thousands of people in the square below. It is not known if he will be able to stand or will deliver the speech from his wheelchair.
Meanwhile today the Archbishop of Canterbury will urge people to remember the “immense anxiety and hardship” caused by the cost-of-living crisis in the UK.
Justin Welby is also expected to reference the “desperate struggles of hospital wards” as well as those people who make perilous journeys in small boats, when he delivers his annual message on Christmas Day.
Mr Welby is set to tell those listening that despite war and conflicts around the world and financial pressures on people closer to home, there is “unconquerable hope” in the birth of Jesus Christ.
In his first Christmas message since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Mr Welby will praise the example set by the late monarch, who he will say “in obedience to the Christ-child lived a life of service and put her interest after those of the people she served”.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby will deliver his Christmas sermon later today PA
The Archbishop, who visited a church-run food bank in Canterbury in recent days, is expected to express his concern for those struggling in a cost-of-living crisis which he says is causing “immense anxiety and hardship” for many people across the UK.
He is expected to tell the Christmas Day Eucharist at Canterbury Cathedra: “In Jesus Christ, God reaches out to each one of us here; to those who like his family have no resources, into the dark cells of prisons, into the desperate struggles of hospital wards, to those on small boats, to the despairing, and even to the condemned and the wicked, and says: ‘Take me into your heart and life, let me set you free from the darkness that surrounds and fills you, for I too have been there.
“For in me there is forgiveness, hope, life and joy, whoever and wherever you are, whatever you have done’.”
Referring to suffering of millions facing famine amid fighting in South Sudan and, like the Pope, the ongoing war in Ukraine, Mr Welby is expected to appeal to world leaders to bring an end to violence and in turn “bring hope to millions”.
He is expected to say: “Even if the world forgets injustice, pays no attention to a war, God is present through Jesus in the world… In this child God shows God does not give up on us.
"When the darkness feels like it might overcome, we are tempted to look inwards. But God does not give up on anyone, ever.”