Pope Francis said the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, strips it “of that false saccharine-sweetness that does not belong to it”.
In his Angelus address on Friday he quoted the Gospel reading for the day in which Christ tells his disciples, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.”
He urged Catholics to pray for “all those who are discriminated against because of their witness to Christ”, adding: “I want to say to each of them: If you carry this cross with love, you have entered into the mystery of Christmas, you are in the heart of Jesus and of the Church.”
"Let us pray also that, thanks to the sacrifices of the martyrs of today, the commitment to recognise and concretely to ensure religious liberty – an inalienable right of every human person – would be strengthened in every part of the world," he added.
The plight of persecuted Christians has been a recurrent theme in Francis’ Christmas homilies this week. In his annual Urbi et Orbi message the day before, he spoke out against the "brutal" persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East that has intensified this year, while calling for peace in Ukraine, Libya and other world conflict zones.
In his second Christmas Day address from St Peter’s Square he condemned violence against children, in particular the horrific murder of more than 100 children at their school in Pakistan last week.
Francis told thousands gathered outside the Basilica: “Truly there are so many tears this Christmas.”
Watch Pope Francis give his Christmas message and Urbi et Orbi blessing:
In a separate address at his Midnight Mass service last night, Francis had called for more “tenderness” in the world.
On Christmas Eve he telephoned a group of Iraqi refugees in a camp near the northern city of Irbil to tell them to "persevere" saying he "was close to them".
Speaking at the Vatican at noon Francis said: “I ask him, the saviour of the world, to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution."
He said that Christmas brought fresh “hope for the displaced, migrants and refugees: children, adults and old people."
Francis pointed out that Jesus was a child, as he issued a special message for the world’s children speaking out against abortion, those who are victims of trafficking or forced to become soldiers.
He said: “My thoughts go to all children today, killed and maltreated, including those who never even saw light, deprived of the love of their parents, entombed in the selfishness of our culture”.
He asked for prayers for those "displaced by war and persecution, abused and exploited in front of our eyes and our complicit silence. And those massacred under bombardment, even in the very place where Jesus was born.”
He remembered the victims of Ebola in Guinea Liberia and Sierra Leone and thanked "from his heart" those who are "courageously caring for the sick and their families" . He invoked peace for other Africa countries such as Congo, Central African Republic as well as South Sudan. "I ask the politicians to try to find dialogue overcome difference and building a lasting brotherly co-existence," he added.
In keeping with a more serious tone of late Francis did not end the address with his usual jolly "Have a good lunch" but just wished those present a "Happy Christmas".
Full text of Pope Francis' Urbi et Orbi address:
Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Christmas!
Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, is born for us, born in Bethlehem of a Virgin, fulfilling the ancient prophecies. The Virgin’s name is Mary, the wife of Joseph.
Humble people, full of hope in the goodness of God, are those who welcome Jesus and recognize him. And so the Holy Spirit enlightened the shepherds of Bethlehem, who hastened to the grotto and adored the Child. Then the Spirit led the elderly couple Simeon and Anna into the temple of Jerusalem, and they recognized in Jesus the Messiah. “My eyes have seen your salvation”, Simeon exclaimed, “the salvation prepared by God in the sight of all peoples” (Lk 2:30).
Yes, brothers and sisters, Jesus is the salvation for every person and for every people!
I ask him, the Saviour of the world, to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution. May Christmas bring them hope, as indeed also to the many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, children, adults and elderly, from this region and from the whole world. May indifference be changed into closeness and rejection into hospitality, so that all who now are suffering may receive the necessary humanitarian help to overcome the rigours of winter, return to their countries and live with dignity. May the Lord open hearts to trust, and may he bestow his peace upon the whole Middle East, beginning with the land blessed by his birth, thereby sustaining the efforts of those committed effectively to dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.
May Jesus, Saviour of the world, protect all who suffer in Ukraine, and grant that their beloved land may overcome tensions, conquer hatred and violence, and set out on a new journey of fraternity and reconciliation.
May Christ the Saviour give peace to Nigeria, where more blood is being shed and too many people are unjustly deprived of their possessions, held as hostages or killed. I invoke peace also on the other parts of the African continent, thinking especially of Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and various regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I beseech all who have political responsibility to commit themselves through dialogue to overcoming differences and to building a lasting, fraternal coexistence.
May Jesus save the vast numbers of children who are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking, or forced to become soldiers. May he give comfort to the families of the children killed in Pakistan last week. May he be close to all who suffer from illness, especially the victims of the Ebola epidemic, above all in Liberia, in Sierra Leone and in Guinea. As I thank all who are courageously dedicated to assisting the sick and their family members, I once more make an urgent appeal that the necessary assistance and treatment be provided.
Truly there are so many tears this Christmas, together with the tears of the Infant Jesus. Dear brothers and sisters, may the Holy Spirit today enlighten our hearts, that we may recognise in the Infant Jesus, born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, the salvation given by God to each one of us, to each man and woman and to all the peoples of the earth. May the power of Christ, which brings freedom and service, be felt in so many hearts afflicted by war, persecution and slavery. May this divine power, by its meekness, take away the hardness of heart of so many men and women immersed in worldliness and indifference. May his redeeming strength transform arms into ploughshares, destruction into creativity, hatred into love and tenderness. Then we will be able to cry out with joy: “Our eyes have seen your salvation”.