VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is focusing his attention on all those suffering this Christmas, singling out the refugees, hostages and other victims of brutal conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of Romans and tourists gathered in St. Peter’s Square Thursday to hear the pontiff deliver the Catholic church’s traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (Latin for “to the city and to the world”) Christmas message from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“Truly there are so many tears this Christmas,” Francis said in his second Christmas message since becoming pope.
On a day that brings joy to little ones in much of the world, Francis expressed anguish for children who are victims of violence, including the recent terrorist attack on a Pakistani military school, or those who are trafficked or forced to be soldiers.
Francis began his review of the world’s troubled places by recalling the persecution of ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, along with those from other ethnic and religious groups. “May Christmas bring them hope,” he said.
The pope also thanked those courageously helping people infected with Ebola in West Africa.
He prayed, too, that those in affluent countries, who are “immersed in worldliness and indifference,” will experience a softening of heart.
The themes of his Christmas message echoed those he raised on Christmas Eve, when he placed a phone call to an Iraqi refugee camp and spoke with people forced to flee their homes by ISIS Islamist militants.
Francis told the mostly Christian refugees at the tent camp in Ankawa, a suburb of Irbil in northern Iraq, that they were like Jesus, forced to flee because there was no place for them.
“You’re like Jesus on this night, and I bless you and am close to you,” Francis told the Iraqis, according to the audio of the call provided by TV2000, the television of the Italian bishops’ conference which arranged the hookup. “I embrace you all and wish for you a holy Christmas.”
During the late-night Mass Christmas Eve in St. Peter’s, Francis reflected,”How much the world needs tenderness today!” he said. “God’s patience, God’s closeness, God’s tenderness.”
The phone call and nighttime Mass kicked off a busy few weeks for the 78-year-old pontiff that includes his traditional Christmas day speech, New Year’s Eve vespers, and 2015 greetings a few hours later.
On Jan. 6 he’ll celebrate Epiphany Mass, and on Jan. 11 he’ll baptize babies in the Sistine Chapel. A day later he gives his annual foreign policy address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See before boarding a plane for a weeklong trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.