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Pope Francis tonight presided at his first Christmas Mass as Bishop of Rome, telling worshippers in a brief homily that Jesus is not just a teacher of wisdom, but is the meaning of life and history, the light who brightens our darkness and is our peace.
Wearing the simple white chasuble and mitre that he brought with him from Buenos Aires nine months ago and carrying the silver processional cross introduced by Paul VI and used by John Paul II, the 77-year-old Jesuit Pope processed into St Peter’s Basilica to trumpet blasts and the singing of “Tu es Petrus”. The night-time liturgy, which began at 9:30 pm, was almost entirely in Latin and very much in the style of the Christmas Masses led by his more liturgically formal predecessor for the past few years.
But in a marked contrast from those previous liturgies, Francis stood at an ambo – rather than sitting on a throne – and gave only a few brief reflections after the proclamation of the Gospel.
“We are people on a journey,” he said in Italian (which the Vatican awkwardly translated as “a people who walk”). “Beginning with Abraham, our father in faith,” the Pope continued, “our identity as believers is that of pilgrim people on the way to the promised land.” He said God was a constant companion on that journey and sent Jesus to offer his “grace, mercy and tender love” to us when we preferred the darkness to the light. “On the part of the people 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.”
But he added: “Our Father is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way that leads to the promised land."
At the end of the Mass he processed down the central aisle of St Peter's carrying a statue of the Baby Jesus to place in a crib scene near the entrance of the basilica. As he did so, the congregation sang, "Adeste Fideles" (O Come, all Ye Faithful), and the Italian Christmas hymn, "Tu Scendi dalle Stelle" (You Descend from the Stars). This was the only purely congregational singing during the liturgy, which was mostly polyphonic Latin chant sung by the Sistine Chapel Choir.
Earlier, in the Holy Land, thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations. The heavy turnout was the highest in years. "The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other," said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, as he arrived in the town.
In the days preceding Christmas, Pope Francis spent three hours visiting sick children and their families a the Bambino Gesù Hospital just a few blocks from the Vatican. On Monday he went to the former cloistered nuns’ convent in the Vatican gardens that was refurbished as the retirement home of Benedict XVI. The Argentine Pope prayed briefly with his German predecessor and then the two men met for a half-hour private conversation.
Pope Francis called on Pope Emeritus Benedict to give a Christmas greeting and pray together with his predecessor. “It is a pleasure to see you looking so well,” Pope Francis told Benedict, 86, who met him at the door of the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, where he has been living following his resignation. Photos released by the official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano show the two men dressed in identical white robes save for Francis' cape, chatting in a sitting room inside Benedict's retirement home.
Benedict was looking well, using a cane for support while they stood in prayer. Pope Francis was accompanied by his personal secretaries and also greeted members of Pope Benedict’s “pontifical family,” which include Archbishop George Ganswein, prefect of the Pontifical Household and Benedict's personal secretary, as well as the “Memores Domini,” a small group of consecrated women who help him. It is the first time the inside of Benedict’s retirement residence has been shown.
When the two parted, Pope Francis said “Merry Christmas, pray for me,” to which Benedict replied “Always, always, always.”
Francis will deliver the traditional Urbi et Orbi Message and Blessing at noon tomorrow from central balcony on the façade of St Peter’s Basilica.
Photo: Pope Francis prays with retired Pope Benedict XVI during a visit to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery at the Vatican on 23 December. The monastery, located in the Vatican Gardens to the north of St. Peter's Basilica, is where the retired pope is living, CNS
Read the Pope's homily below:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1).
This prophecy of Isaiah never ceases to touch us, especially when we hear it proclaimed in the liturgy of Christmas Night. This is not simply an emotional or sentimental matter. It moves us because it states the deep reality of what we are: a people who walk, and all around us – and within us as well – there is darkness and light. In this night, as the spirit of darkness enfolds the world, there takes place anew the event which always amazes and surprises us: the people who walk see a great light. A light which makes us reflect on this mystery: the mystery of walking and seeing.
Walking. This verb makes us reflect on the course of history, that long journey which is the history of salvation, starting with Abraham, our father in faith, whom the Lord called one day to set out, to go forth from his country towards the land which he would show him. From that time on, our identity as believers has been that of a people making its pilgrim way towards the promised land. This history has always been accompanied by the Lord! He is ever faithful to his covenant and to his promises. “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5). Yet on the part of the people 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 our personal history too, there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows. 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. “Whoever hates his brother – writes the Apostle John – is in the darkness; he walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 Jn 2:11).
2. On this night, like a burst of brilliant light, there rings out the proclamation of the Apostle: “God's grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race” (Tit 2:11).
The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He has entered our history; he has shared our journey. He 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.
3. The shepherds were the first to see this “tent”, to receive the news of Jesus’ birth. They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast. And they were the first because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks. Together with them, 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.
On this night let us share the joy of the Gospel: God loves us, he so loves us that he gave us his Son to be our brother, to be light in our darkness. To us the Lord repeats: “Do not be afraid!” (Lk 2:10). And I too repeat: Do not 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. He is our peace. Amen.