ROSARIO, Argentina — When history books look back on how the Catholic Church experienced Christmas 2020, no matter where that history is written, inevitably the COVID-19 pandemic will loom large.
In Rome and around the world, bishops and other Catholic leaders called for vaccines to be made available to poor countries, expressed sorrow over the almost two million lives lost worldwide and reflected on the economic and cultural fallout of the crisis.
Yet no one, especially a global institution of 1.3 billion people, ever faces just one problem at a time, and so Catholic leaders also used the holidays to bring up several other issues too.
Here’s a roundup of Christmas messages and homilies from around the world, signaling the particular concerns of each bishop or local Church.
Holy Land: A Plea for Inclusion
Italian Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who got a clean bill of health Dec. 22 after contracting COVID-19, wrote in his Christmas message that Christ “is the only logical response to the sad reality of our world.”
Though much of his letter turned around the virus, the patriarch also made a strong plea for social inclusion.
“Tonight, we do not want, and we cannot forget, the sadness and worry that grips the world’s heart as in a vice,” Pizzaballa wrote. “Even here in the Holy Land, we are no exception. We live in a land with plurality and openness to the world as its vocation, but we continually witness opposite attitudes.”
“Instead of being inclusive, we are increasingly exclusive: instead of recognizing each other, we deny each other,” he wrote. “I am thinking of our faithful who live in Palestine: for them also, as for Mary and Joseph, there seems to be no place in the world, continually invited, before being able to live with dignity in their home, to await an unknown and repeatedly postponed future.”
Pope Francis too included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his blessing to the City of Rome and the World on Christmas Day, calling for both peoples to “regain mutual trust and seek a just and lasting peace through a direct dialogue capable of ending violence and overcoming endemic grieavances, and thus bear witness before the world to the beauty of fraternity.
Colombia: Compassion for the needy
Archbishop Luis Jose Rueda, appointed earlier this year by Pope Francis as Archbishop of Bogota, Colombia’s capital, said in his message that Christmas is a time of joy that “gives us a missionary task,” calling on the faithful to show compassion towards the needy.
Those who are sick, elderly, kidnapped or imprisoned, he said, “must be part of our hearts.”
Rueda also offered three moments, a spiritual one, an ecclesial one and a family one, to put into practice during the season, leading believers to renew their lives in such a way that “if we feel siblings in Christ, then the suffering of the other must be our pain, the joy of the other, ours.”
He also invited families to tell Jesus child to “come to our homes, we have a place for you,” as this is a time to “impregnate ourselves of God and his plan of salvation that brings hope to our lives.”
Burkina Faso: Resist cultural colonization
Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo, Archbishop of Ouagadougou, said Mass on Dec. 24, heavily quoting Pope Francis. He referred to this as the Christmas of “the pandemic, of the health crisis, of the economic, social and even ecclesial crisis, which blindly struck the whole world.” Secondly, he referred to a “regrettable deterioration of ethics and a weakening of spiritual values and a sense of responsibility.”
According to Ouedraogo, the “so-called developed countries and powerful lobbies want to impose on poorer countries the ratification of abortion and contraceptive methods through financial aid.”
This is something many church leaders have denounced through the years, and it’s what Pope Francis refers too when he speaks of “ideological colonization”.
It’s something his fellow Argentine bishops denounced in various opportunities during the final months of this year, as Argentina once again gears up to debate abortion- a half-sanctioned presidential bill could be debated by the Senate on Dec. 29-, and the bill could become law, despite the fact that 60 percent of the nation heavily opposes it, and only 29 percent of the population approves of abortion.
Ouedraogo also said that these practices, abortion and contraception, have had many consequences, including a drastic drop in birth rate, the aging of populations and the abandonment of the elderly.
“The church must promote a gateway to support families and educate young people for responsible sexual behavior,” the cardinal said.
He denounced the “forms of cultural colonization” as “the arrogance of the strongest, obsessed with conflicts of interest, sacrificing certain parts of humanity by keeping them in a scandalous situation of dependence and misery without any respect for their dignity.”
Venezuela: End our “grave crisis”
There was no joint Christmas message from the Venezuelan bishops’ conference this yearbut the body’s press department put out a short statement on Christmas Day, highlighting Pope Francis remarks on Venezuela during his Urbi et orbi blessing (to the city of Rome and the world.)
As he went through different countries and regions that face challenges, Francis referred to the American continent, “particularly affected” by the coronavirus, which has intensified its many sufferings, “frequently aggravated by the effects of corruption and drug trafficking.”
“May [God] ease the recent social tensions in Chile and end the sufferings of the people of Venezuela,” he said.
The Venezuelan conference focused on the last line, noting that the pontiff has often called to help the problems the country faces, including the fact that 80 percent of its population lives under the poverty line and that at least three million people have fled the country in the last decade looking for a better future in neighboring countries, the U.S. and Europe.
As the conference noted, back in April the pope called for the “facilitation of international aid to the population that suffers due to the grave political, social, economic and sanitary crises.”
“The support from Pope Francis has been a constant when showing his concern for the grave crisis of the Venezuelan people,” the conference wrote in their website.
Honduras: God shouldn’t be ‘great absentee’ at Christmas party
Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, a member of the council of cardinals that advices the pope, recalled refugees, immigrants, those affected in Honduras by back-to-back tropical storms Eta and Iota that struck in November, and the war in Syria during his Christmas Mass
“God really has no home now in the refugee camps, where they suffer hunger, hatred, war in the Middle East, in Libya, Iraq, Sudan, the children of Syria, a country that is devastated after a decade-long war,” he said.
More than 371,000 people have died as a result of the Syrian conflict, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Maradiaga said that God doesn’t have a home in the many who lost it all after the two devastating storms that struck several Central American countries in early December.
Over 3.5 million Hondurans were affected by the storms, that on top of heavy winds and rains, left behind floods and landslides, killing over 100 and destroying homes and crops.
“How sad that in this world there is no place for refugees, immigrants, the elderly who live alone and for those most in need,” Maradiaga said, before asking for God’s help to “be more human every day.”
Towards the closing of his homily, the cardinal noted that all of these events, as tragic as they are, are less so than “God not having a home in our hearts, when we do not want to receive or shelter him.”
“How sad it is, when God is the great absentee at the Christmas party,” he said, before stressing that the birth of Jesus “is not a simple historical event, it is much more, he comes to meet us, receives us all, accepts our fragile and limited human condition.”
Spain: Don’t leave new arrivals at the door
Cardinal Juan Jose Omella, president of the Spanish bishops’ conference, asked faithful and all the people of good will to “welcome those who come for afar and share with those who have nothing.”
The archbishop of Barcelona said that the birth of Jesus teaches that “the greatest greatness is in the small.”
Speaking about the Holy Family, Omella said that they couldn’t celebrate Christ’s birth where they wanted, nor share it with whom they wanted. By leaving them outside, in the manger, he said, the “local people” of Bethlehem, “left out the best, those most in need.”
“That family that came from abroad, as it happens so many times, was a blessing, a wealth and a new gift for that society,” the cardinal said, in a clear reference to the growing willingness from Spain to welcome migrants. “Leaving them outside, they lost the best. Let that not happen to us.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma