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Avoid temptation with ‘spiritual shrewdness,’ says pope on feast of Epiphany

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Christians should go out into the world to follow God but use “holy cunning” to guard against the snares of temptation, Pope Francis said.

The pope made the remarks at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica Jan. 6 on the feast of the Epiphany, which marks the manifestation of Jesus as savior to the world.

A woman dressed as royalty walks under a canopy as period enactors participate in an Epiphany parade in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Jan. 6. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In his homily, the pope said that life is a journey, and like the three Wise Men, or Magi, people are looking for the “fullness of truth and of love which we Christians recognize in Jesus, the light of the world.”

Jesus is found by reading the world of God’s creation and the sacred Scripture, which nourishes the soul and “enables us to encounter the living Jesus, to experience him and his love,” the pope said.

On life’s journey, we need to be “attentive, alert and listen to God who speaks to us,” and be prepared when we encounter “darkness, suspicion, fear and jealousy.”

This happened to the Magi when they briefly lost sight of the star to Bethlehem and passed through Jerusalem where they encountered King Herod, who was “distrustful and preoccupied with the birth of a frail child whom he thought of as a rival,” the pope said.

Jesus wasn’t interested in usurping the king, “a wretched puppet,” the pope said, but in overthrowing the devil.

Nonetheless, the king and his counselors felt threatened and feared “a whole world built on power, on success, on possession, on corruption was being thrown into crisis by a child,” the pope said.

“The Magi were able to overcome that dangerous moment of darkness before Herod, because they believed in the Scriptures,” and believed the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, he said.

They were able to flee the darkness and resume their journey toward God because of a “holy cunning, that is, a spiritual shrewdness which enables us to recognize danger and to avoid it.”

Pope Francis said Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” means Christians must welcome God into their hearts and “cultivate that spiritual cunning which is able to combine simplicity with astuteness.”

The Magi “teach us how not to fall into the snares of darkness and how to defend ourselves from the shadows which seek to envelop our life,” the pope said.

Like the Magi, we need to “safeguard the faith with holy cunning, guard it from that darkness which, many times, is also disguised as light,” he said.

“Shield it from the song of the Sirens,” who seek to distract us from taking the right path, guarding one’s faith “with prayer, with love, with charity.”

The Magi also teach us “not to be content with a life of mediocrity, of playing it safe, but to let ourselves be attracted always by what is good, true and beautiful, by God,” he said.

Look to the heavens as they did, aim high and “follow the great desires of our heart” while also being wise to the deception of appearances, by what the “world considers great, wise and powerful.”

“We must not be content with appearances,” but press on, past the darkness and worldly temptations, to the periphery, to Bethlehem, to find the true light and king of the universe, the pope said.

After the Mass, tens of thousands of people streamed to St. Peter’s Square to listen to the pope’s noon prayer and to visit the Vatican’s Nativity scene.

Like the star that appeared in the night sky over Bethlehem, God is the first to appear and signal to the world his presence, the pope said.

God is always the first to take the initiative; he is the one who invites and then patiently waits.

“The Lord calls you, the Lord looks for you, the Lord waits for you,” the pope said. “The Lord doesn’t proselytize. He gives love and this love looks for you and waits for you, you! Even if right now you don’t believe or you are far” from God.

The pope noted Jan. 6 marked World Day of Missionary Childhood, and he praised the efforts by Christian children to spread the Gospel and reach out to the less fortunate.

The pope also extended a Christmas greeting to Eastern Christians who follow the Julian calendar and were preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ Jan. 7.

He asked that Jesus “strengthen in everyone their faith, hope and love, and give comfort to the Christian communities experiencing ordeals.”

 

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Pope limits monsignor honor to diocesan priests 65 or older

January 6th, 2014 Posted in Vatican News Tags: , , ,

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has decided to limit the honor of “monsignor” among diocesan priests and grant it from now on only to those at least 65 years of age.

The change, which is not retroactive and does not affect Vatican officials or members of religious orders, was announced in a letter from the Vatican Secretariat of State to nunciatures around the world, along with instructions to inform local bishops.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, informed U.S. bishops of the new policy in a letter dated Dec. 30. Msgr. Ronny E. Jenkins, general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, forwarded the letter to the bishops Jan. 3.

Of the three grades of monsignor — apostolic protonotary, honorary prelate of His Holiness and chaplain of His Holiness — only the last will be available to diocesan priests who meet the new age requirement.

Bishops must resubmit any pending requests for papal honors in accordance with the new rules.

Archbishop Vigano’s letter did not give a reason for the change, but Pope Francis has often warned clergy against the temptations of careerism and personal ambition.

The archbishop noted that there had been no change regarding the granting of ecclesiastical honors to laypeople.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, noted Jan. 6 that Pope Paul VI had reformed the system of ecclesiastical honors in 1968, reducing the number of titles to three.

“Pope Francis’ decision thus follows in the same line, with further simplification,” Father Lombardi said.

 

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Pope orders new rules on relations between bishops, religious orders

January 3rd, 2014 Posted in Featured, Vatican News Tags: ,

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said he has ordered a revision of what he called outdated Vatican norms on the relations between religious orders and local bishops, in order to promote greater appreciation of the orders’ distinctive missions.

The pope’s words were published Jan. 3 in the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica. He made the comments Nov. 29 at a closed-door meeting with 120 superiors general of religious orders from around the world. Read more »

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It’s time to stop violence, discord, and begin making peace at home, Francis says

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Welcoming in a new year, Pope Francis said it was time to stop provoking and ignoring violence, tragedy and conflict in the world, and begin building peace at home.

“Justice and peace at home, among us, you begin at home and then you move on to all of humanity. But we have to start at home,” he said Jan. 1, which the church marks as the feast of Mary, Mother of God and as World Peace Day.

Children bring Pope Francis a chalice during the offertory as he celebrates Mass in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica on the feast of Mary, Mother of God, Jan. 1. (CNS photo/Giampiero Sposito, Reuters)

Speaking to tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the first noon Angelus of 2014, the pope referred to his peace day message, which he said called for building a world where everyone “respects each other, accepts others in their diversity and takes care of each and every one.”

People must not remain “indifferent and immobile” in the face of violence and injustice, but commit themselves to “build a truly more just and caring society,” he said.

The pope referred to a letter he had received the day before from a man struggling to understand why there were still so many tragedies and wars.

The pope said he wanted to ask the same question: “What is happening in people’s hearts? What is going on in the heart of humanity” that leads to violence?

“It’s time to stop,” Pope Francis said. “It will do us good to stop taking this path of violence.”

May God “help all of us walk the path of justice and peace with greater determination,” he said, and the Holy Spirit break down the obstinacy and barriers people construct between each other.

The pope also prayed to Mary that the “Gospel of fraternity” might “speak to every conscience and knock down the walls that hinder enemies from recognizing each other as brothers and sisters.”

Earlier in the day, the pope celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, which was decorated with white flowers, evergreens, gold trim and poinsettias. Two girls and one boy, wearing long capes and shiny gold paper crowns in memory of the magi who traveled to Bethlehem, brought the offertory gifts to the pope.

Prayers for peace were offered in five languages; the Spanish version asked that God “bless all women and all mothers, called to bring forth, to guard and to promote life.”

In his homily, the pope said Mary, the Mother of God, became the mother of all humanity when Jesus, dying on the cross, gave her to the world.

When she lost her divine son, “her sorrowing heart was enlarged to make room for all men and women, whether good or bad, and she loves them as she loved Jesus,” he said.

Even before the church officially defined Mary as God’s mother in the fifth century, the faithful had already acknowledged her divine maternity and called for its recognition, the pope said, noting the case as an example of the “sensus fidei” (sense of the faith) “of holy people, the faithful of God, who, in their unity, are never ever wrong.”

Mary is a source of hope and true joy and continually strengthens people in their faith, vocation and mission, he said. “By her example of humility and openness to God’s will she helps us to transmit our faith in a joyful proclamation of the Gospel to all, without reservation.”

He asked the faithful to entrust with Mary their journey of faith, their hopes and needs as well as “the needs of the whole world, especially of those who hunger and thirst for justice, peace and God.”

In his homily, Pope Francis also mentioned the Marian icon “Salus Populi Romani” (health of the Roman people) in Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major, which he said was the first Marian shrine in the West where the image of the Mother of God, the “Theotokos,” was venerated.

According to Vatican Radio, the pope visited St. Mary Major Dec. 31 to pray at length before the icon, repeating a pilgrimage he made on the first morning of his pontificate in March and on other subsequent occasions.

 

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Pope Francis: 2014 will be brighter if everyone steps outside their comfort zones to work on solving problems

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The new year will be brighter only if everyone steps outside their safe havens, gets involved and works together to solve local problems with generosity and love, Pope Francis said.

As 2013 comes to a close, let everyone ask God for forgiveness and thank him for his patience and love, the pope said as he presided over a Dec. 31 evening prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Pope Francis arrives to visit the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square after leading an evening prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

May Mary “teach us to welcome God made man so that every year, every month, every day be overflowing with his eternal love,” he said on the eve of the feast honoring her as Mother of God.

Leading the annual “Te Deum” prayer service to thank God for his blessings in 2013 and the gift of salvation in Christ, the pope asked people to reflect on how they have spent the past year, the precious days, weeks and months the Lord has given as a gift to everyone.

“Have we used it mostly for ourselves, for our own interests or did we know to spend it for others, too? How much time did we set aside for being with God, in prayer, in silence, in adoration?”

People should also reflect on how they used their time to contribute to their communities.

The quality of life in a community, how it runs and looks, depends on everyone, he said in his homily, which he delivered standing from a lectern.

“A city’s face is like a mosaic in which the tiles are all those who live there,” he said.

While public officials and other leaders certainly have more responsibility, “everyone is co-responsible, for the good and bad.”

“Have we contributed, in our small way, to making (our communities) livable, orderly, and welcoming?” the pope asked. “What will we do, how will we act in the new year to make our city a little bit better?”

As the bishop of Rome, the pope looked at the Italian capital in particular, noting its “extraordinary” spiritual and cultural riches.

“And yet, Rome also has many people marked by material and moral poverty, people who are poor, unhappy and suffering, who prick the consciences of every citizen,” he said.

“In Rome, perhaps we feel this contrast more strongly” with such a stark difference between its “majestic setting, loaded with artistic beauty” and the difficulties people struggle against.

A city of opposites, Rome is teeming with tourists, “but is also filled with refugees. Rome is full of people who work, but also people who can’t find work,” who are underpaid or have jobs that harm their dignity, he said.

“Everyone has the right to be treated with the same attitude of welcome and fairness because everyone possesses human dignity” and are part of the same human family, he said.

Pope Francis said Rome, like all communities, will be more beautiful, hospitable, welcoming and kind “if all of us are attentive and generous toward whoever is in difficulty; if we know how to collaborate with a constructive and caring spirit for the good of all people.”

Every community will be a better place “if there are no people who watch it ‘from afar,’ like a picture postcard, who observe its life only ‘from the balcony’ without getting involved” directly with the many problems of the men and women who, “whether we want it or not, are our brothers and sisters.”

The pope underlined the important work and duty of the church in contributing to people’s lives and future, and how, with the leaven of the Gospel, the church is a sign and instrument of God’s mercy.

After the prayer service, Pope Francis visited St. Peter’s Square to get a close look at the Nativity scene.

 

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Vatican to host world leaders to push for end to Syrian war

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Egyptian Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei are among the key political experts invited by the Vatican for a one-day meeting aimed at promoting a cease-fire in Syria, the protection of Christians there and a transitional and unified government.

Residents search for survivors after what activists said were air strikes by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Aleppo Dec. 28. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Egyptian Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei are among the key political experts invited by the Vatican for a one-day meeting aimed at promoting a cease-fire in Syria, the protection of Christians there and a transitional and unified government. (CNSphoto/Jalal Alhalabi, Reuters)

The Vatican meeting Jan. 13 will come ahead of major peace talks Jan. 22 in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition forces.

Sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the daylong Vatican “workshop” will seek to propose “a cease-fire to make humanitarian aid possible” in Syria; an end to “persecutions against Christians to encourage interreligious dialogue; a transitional authority to organize elections (and) a unified national government also responsible for the military sector and security;” as well as an end to human trafficking and prostitution in the war-torn nation.

The meeting’s title is “Syria: With a death toll of 126,000 and 300,000 orphans in 36 months of war, can we remain indifferent?”

The eight-page program, prepared by the sciences academy, gave a brief background of the Syrian conflict. It said U.S. calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down “put the U.S. in effective opposition to the United Nations’ peace initiative” put forth in early 2012.

“Russia argued that America’s insistence on Assad’s immediate departure was an impediment to peace. In this, perhaps Russia was right,” the booklet said.

However, while Russia backed U.N. peace initiatives, it also,with Iran, “supplied more and more sophisticated weapons to the regime” as the U.S. and other countries financed the rebels, it said.

The Vatican invited eight international experts and leaders to discuss the tragedy unfolding in Syria, the political stances of the major international players involved and possible solutions.

With opening remarks by French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the invited speakers are:

• Blair, founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and official envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East: the U.N., European Union, Russia and the United States.

• ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a major figure in Egypt’s revolution against ousted Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi.

• U.S. economist and adviser Jeffrey Sachs, who is active in the world fight against poverty and hunger.

• Thomas Walsh, a U.S. expert in interreligious peace building and security, international president of the Universal Peace Federation.

• Pyotr Stegny, a former diplomat and expert in Russian diplomacy and foreign policy in the Middle East.

• Joseph Maila, a Lebanese expert on the Middle East, Islam and politics.

• Miguel Angel Moratinos, a Spanish diplomat and member of congress who served seven years as the European Union special representative for the Middle East peace process.

• Thierry de Montbrial, a French economist and expert in international relations.

The workshop program outlined Pope Francis’ calls, prayers and diplomatic efforts for peace in the region. It credited Russian President Vladimir Putin with convincing U.S. President Barack Obama to not carry out its threat of military strikes on Syria in September in response to the reported use of chemical weapons against civilians by forces loyal to Assad.

With the upcoming “Geneva II” talks, the “resumption of the U.N. peace process, this time with the U.S. and Russia on the same side to prevent violence, might succeed in keeping al-Qaida at bay, a shared interest, and finding a pragmatic long-term solution for Syria’s complex internal divisions,” it said.

Meanwhile, a two-person delegation representing the Syrian government delivered a letter for Pope Francis from Assad. The letter was delivered Dec. 28 when the Syrians met at the Vatican with Archbishop Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican foreign minister.

The Vatican confirmed the delegates gave the pope “a message” that illustrated the position of the Syrian government.

While the Vatican gave no details about the letter’s contents, Syria’s state-run SANA agency reported the message said Assad’s government was ready for peace talks but wanted foreign countries to stop supporting “the armed terrorist groups” in Syria.

The president also said in his message that he appreciated the pope’s Dec. 25 call for an end to the violence in Syria, the news agency said.

Assad told the pope “the crisis will be solved through national dialogue among the Syrians and under a Syrian leadership without foreign intervention as to enable the Syrians to determine their future and leadership through ballots,” SANA reported.

The January talks in Geneva are a follow-up to a meeting in June 2012 when international parties proposed a peace plan calling for a transitional government body in an effort to end a civil war that began in March 2011.

The conflict between Assad’s government and rebel forces has killed more than 100,000 people, driven 2 million refugees out of Syria and displaced more than 4 million inside the country.

 

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Pope: Don’t forget ‘hidden exiles,’ elderly marginalized by own family

December 30th, 2013 Posted in Featured, Vatican News Tags: , , ,

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Just as people must never ignore the plight of today’s immigrants and refugees, they must also remember today’s “hidden exiles,” the elderly and other relatives who are abandoned or forgotten by their own families, Pope Francis said.

A pilgrim holds a cut-out of Pope Francis as he leads the Angelus from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 29, the feast of the Holy Family. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

“One sign for knowing how a family is doing is to see how they treat children and their elderly” relatives, the pope said at his noon blessing at the Vatican Dec. 29, the feast of the Holy Family.

Remembering how Jesus, Mary and Joseph had to live in exile, seeking escape in Egypt, Christians must also think about the tragedy of “migrants and refugees who are victims of rejection and exploitation, who are victims of human trafficking and slave labor,” he said before praying the Angelus with visitors gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

“But let us also think about the other ‘exiled,’ I would call them the hidden exiles, those exiled by their own family: the elderly, for example, who sometimes are treated as a burden,” he said.

The pope said today’s families should be inspired by the Holy Family’s simplicity and way of life, so they, too, can become “communities of love and reconciliation where one experiences tenderness, helping one another and mutual forgiveness.”

God wanted to be born in a human family and “wanted to have a mother and father, like we” have, the pope said.

Jesus also wanted to belong to a family that had to go through many hardships “so that no one would feel excluded from God’s loving closeness.”

The Holy Family’s forced exile shows that “God is where people are in danger, where they suffer, where they flee, where they experience rejection and abandonment,” he said.

But God is also where there is hope, hope in returning to one’s homeland, in being free and being able to build a life of dignity for oneself and one’s family, he said.

The pope reminded people that the key phrases for cultivating peace and joy in one’s family are “May I; thank you; and I’m sorry,” so that everyone treats each other with respect and generosity.

Families must also recognize how important they are for the church and society, he said.

“The proclamation of the Gospel, in fact, is promoted above all by families so that it then reaches the different areas of daily life.”

After the Angelus, the pope underlined how the family will take center stage during the next consistory or consultation with the College of Cardinals in February and at an October Synod of Bishops, whose work, he said, he was entrusting to Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

The pope created a special prayer for the world’s families, which he recited to the crowd gathered in the square.

The prayer, dedicated to the Holy Family, asks for their intercession to help today’s families be places of love, prayer and healing; be free from violence and division; and be mindful of the sacredness and beauty of the traditional family.

 

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Retired Pope Benedict visits Pope Francis for lunch

December 30th, 2013 Posted in Vatican News Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Three days after Pope Francis paid his predecessor a visit on Christmas Eve, retired Pope Benedict joined the pope for lunch at the Vatican guesthouse.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Pope Francis at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery at the Vatican Dec. 23. The monastery, located in the Vatican Gardens to the north of St. Peter’s Basilica, is where Pope Benedict is living. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

The two shared the meal Dec. 27 at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where Pope Francis lives. According to a report by Vatican Radio, the pope and the retired pope were joined by their personal secretaries and by Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, and U.S. Msgr. Peter B. Wells, assessor in the Vatican Secretariat of State.

Pope Francis had invited Pope Benedict to lunch Dec. 24, when the pope visited the retired pope in his residence to offer Christmas greetings. Pope Benedict lives in the former Mater Ecclesiae convent, also in Vatican City State. During the pope’s visit, the two prayed briefly together and then spoke privately for about half an hour.

Following their private talk on Christmas Eve, Pope Francis greeted members of Pope Benedict’s household, including the consecrated women who assist him and his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, who also serves as prefect of the papal household under Pope Francis.

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Pope, on feast of St. Stephen, prays for persecuted Christians

December 26th, 2013 Posted in Featured, Vatican News Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Observing the feast of the church’s first martyr, Pope Francis prayed for Christians suffering persecution and discrimination around the world, even in countries that nominally honor religious liberty.

The pope made his remarks Dec. 26, the feast of St. Stephen, before praying the Angelus from his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

Children carry flowers in procession as they leave Christmas Eve Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“Today we pray in a particular way for Christians who undergo discrimination because of their witness to Christ and the Gospel,” he said. “We are close to these brothers and sisters who, like St. Stephen, are unjustly accused and made targets of violence of various kinds. I am sure that, unfortunately, there are more of them today than in the early days of the church. There are so many.

“This (persecution) happens, especially where religious liberty is not yet guaranteed and fully realized,” Pope Francis said. “But it also happens in countries and societies that protect liberty and human rights on paper, but where, in fact, believers, especially Christians, encounter abridgements of liberty and discrimination.”

The pope then led the crowd in the square in prayer for persecuted Christians, first with a moment of silence and then with a recital of the Hail Mary.

“For the Christian, (persecution) is no surprise, because Jesus foretold it as a propitious occasion for bearing witness,” he added. “Nevertheless, in the civil sphere, this injustice must be denounced and eliminated.”

Pope Francis said that commemorating St. Stephen’s martyrdom might seem to clash with the spirit of Christmas, the “feast of life which inspires us with sentiments of serenity and peace. Why disturb its enchantment with the memory of such atrocious violence?”

But the pope said the feast of St. Stephen, who died asking forgiveness for his killers, is “fully in tune with the deep meaning of Christmas. In martyrdom, in fact, violence is defeated by love, death by life.”

Pope Francis said remembering the first martyr dispels a “false image of Christmas, sugary and fairy-tale like, which is not found in the Gospel. The liturgy recalls for us the authentic sense of the incarnation, linking Bethlehem to Calvary and reminding us that divine salvation implies the struggle against sin and passes through the narrow gate of the cross.”

 

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Christmas is time to feel God’s closeness, experience peace, pope says

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Celebrating the first Christmas since his election, Pope Francis preached the goodness and tenderness of God, and prayed that men and women around the world would allow God’s grace to transform them into peacemakers.

Pope Francis kisses a figurine of the baby Jesus after celebrating Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“Let us allow our hearts to be touched, let us allow ourselves to be warmed by the tenderness of God; we need his caress,” the pope said Dec. 25, standing on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and addressing an estimated 70,000 people in the square below.

“God is peace,” the pope said. “Let us ask him to help us to be peacemakers each day, in our life, in our families, in our cities and nations, in the whole world. Let us allow ourselves to be moved by God’s goodness.”

“My hope is that everyone will feel God’s closeness, live in his presence, love him and adore him,” Pope Francis said before delivering his Christmas blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world).

Instead of reading Christmas greetings in more than 50 languages, from Chinese to Swahili, as his predecessors had done, Pope Francis spoke only in Italian.

As is traditional, his Christmas address included prayers and pleas for peace in war-torn and tense countries around the world, including Syria, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Israel and Palestine and Iraq, where a car bomb exploded outside a church a few hours earlier, killing at least a dozen people.

Looking at the Christ child, “our thoughts turn to those children who are the most vulnerable victims of wars,” he said. Offering a prayer, he asked God to “look upon the many children who are kidnapped, wounded and killed in armed conflicts, and all those who are robbed of their childhood and forced to become soldiers.”

“Wars shatter and hurt so many lives,” he said.

“True peace is not a balance of opposing forces,” he said, and it is not “a lovely façade” simply covering conflicts and divisions. Rather, “peace calls for daily commitment, it’s homemade, starting from God’s gift, from the grace which he has given us in Jesus Christ.”

Departing from his prepared text, Pope Francis asked nonbelievers who feel unable to pray to “enlarge their hearts” by ardently desiring peace.

Pope Francis also prayed for the elderly, for battered women, for the sick, for migrants and refugees, for those persecuted for their faith, for the victims of human trafficking and for the conversion of traffickers.

The pope’s Christmas celebrations began in the crisp air of a cloudless winter night when he celebrated Christmas Mass Dec. 24 in St. Peter’s Basilica, starting his homily with the first line from the night’s reading from Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

The reading gave the pope an opportunity to combine reflections on the Christmas symbolism of light and a verb he has emphasized since his first Mass at pope: “to walk.”

Thousands of people packed into the basilica for the Mass and hundreds stood outside watching on big video screens; already in November people were being told there were no more of the free tickets left.

Pope Francis carried a statue of the baby Jesus to a golden manger in front of the altar at the beginning of Mass. After the liturgy, walking behind children from Italy, the Philippines, Argentina, Congo and Lebanon, he carried the statue to a Nativity scene.

In his homily, the pope said that from the moment God called Abraham, believers in the one God have been a walking, pilgrim people, and through all the wandering, God has never left his people’s side.

“Yet on the part of the people,” he said, “there are times of both light and darkness, fidelity and infidelity, obedience and rebellion; times of being a pilgrim people and times of being a people adrift.”

In individual stories as well, “there are both bright and dark moments,” the pope said. “If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us.”

The glad tidings of Christmas reveal that God has broken into the world with light and salvation, he said. “Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God,” has entered human history and is sharing the human journey.

“Jesus is love incarnate,” Pope Francis said. “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.”

The biblical Christmas story tells how the shepherds were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth and the first to run to see him. They were first, the pope said, because in social standing they were among the last. They were the ones outside town staying up all night keeping watch over the flocks.

With the shepherds, he said, “let us pause before the Child, let us pause in silence.”

“Together with them, let us thank the Lord for having given Jesus to us, and with them let us raise from the depths of our hearts the praises of his fidelity: ‘We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake. 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.’”

As people continue their journey through the world, even when it is dark, Pope Francis said Christmas is a reminder that they do not have to be afraid. “Our Father is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness.”

While the pope added only a few improvised words to his prepared text, one phrase he added was a familiar refrain of his pontificate: The Lord is merciful; “our Father always forgives us. He is our peace.”

 

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