In his first Christmas message and blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city of Rome and the world), Pope Francis issued impassioned pleas for peace in the Middle East and war-torn countries in Africa, while also remembering children who are victims of war, the elderly, battered women, the sick, trafficked persons and refugees.
Addressing a crowd of pilgrims from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pope said that true peace is not a "balance of opposing forces," nor a "lovely façade which conceals conflicts and divisions." Rather, he said, peace calls for "daily commitment, starting from God’s gift, from the grace which he has given us in Jesus Christ."
Looking at the Child in the manger, he said "our thoughts turn to those children who are the most vulnerable, victims of wars; but we think, too, of the elderly, of battered women, of the sick. … Wars shatter and hurt so many lives!"
Too many lives have been "shattered" in the conflict in Syria, he said, "fueling hatred and vengeance." And he asked all to call on the Lord to spare the "beloved Syrian people further suffering," end the conflict and guarantee access to humanitarian aid.
Implicitly recalling the vigil for prayer in Syria that he called in September 2013, the Pope noted, "We have seen how powerful prayer is!" He added that he was happy that followers of other religions have also joined in prayer.
"Let us never lose the courage of prayer!" he implored.
The Holy Father said the Central African Republic is "often forgotten and overlooked," but not by God, who wishes to bring peace to that land, too — a country where "so many are homeless, lacking water, food and the bare necessities of life."
He called on the Lord to "foster social harmony" in South Sudan, where violence over the past weeks, including a failed coup, has cost more than a thousand lives in the country. The conflict is "threatening peaceful coexistence in that young state," he said.
Calling on the "Prince of Peace" to turn hearts away from violence and to pursue dialogue, he recalled the "constant attacks" in Nigeria. He asked the Lord to bless the land "where you chose to come into the world" and to grant "a favorable outcome" to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He also asked that the wounds of the "beloved country of Iraq" be healed.
‘Hope and Consolation’
The Pope called on the Lord of life to protect those persecuted in his name and to "grant hope and consolation" and a "dignified life" to refugees, especially in the Horn of Africa and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He said tragedies — such as the hundreds of refugees who died after their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this year — must "never occur again!"
The Pope also noted the scourge of human trafficking, imploring that God "touch the hearts" of those engaged in it, so they realize the "gravity of their crime." He remembered the many child victims of armed conflict, on a planet that is so "frequently exploited by human greed and rapacity," and the victims of natural disasters, especially of the recent typhoon in the Philippines.
Christmas bids us to "give glory to God," the Pope said at the beginning of his message, "by lives spent for love of him and of all our brothers and sisters." He closed by asking that our hearts be touched "by the tenderness of God."
"God is peace," he said. "Let us ask him to help us to be peacemakers each day, in our lives, in our families, in our cities and nations, in the whole world. Let us allow ourselves to be moved by God’s goodness."
After giving his apostolic blessing, the Pope gave a special greeting to those present and those following through the media. "I invoke the Christmas gift of joy and peace upon all: upon children and the elderly, upon young people and families, the poor and the marginalized," he said. "May Jesus, who was born for us, console all those afflicted by illness and suffering; may he sustain those who devote themselves to serving our brothers and sisters who are most in need. Happy Christmas!"
Midnight Mass Homily
During his homily at his first Christmas midnight Mass as Pope, Francis recalled Jesus’ humble, poor and vulnerable beginnings and urged everyone to emulate him. "You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich, and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful, and you made yourself vulnerable," the Pope said of Jesus in St. Peter’s Basilica.
He warned that if, by contrast, our hearts are "closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit and the constant pursuit of self-interest, then darkness falls within and around us."
Jesus, he reminded, "came to free us from darkness and to grant us light. In him was revealed the grace, the mercy and the tender love of the Father: Jesus is love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom; he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history who has pitched his ‘tent’ in our midst," he said.
The Pope closed by repeating what the angels said to the shepherds: "Do not be afraid!"
"Do not be afraid! Our Father is patient; he loves us," Francis said. "He gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the Promised Land. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness. He is mercy: Our Father always forgives us. He is our peace. Amen."