ROME — Just two days after blasting the Vatican’s upper echelons for being infected by careerism, gossip, and “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” Pope Francis on Wednesday said the message of Christmas is that God’s “patient fidelity is stronger than darkness and corruption.”
Though the pontiff did not link his Christmas Eve meditation to his blistering critique on Monday of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s main administrative bureaucracy, many observers couldn’t help but have that tongue-lashing in mind as he spoke.
“People who were unassuming, open to receiving the gift of God, were the ones who saw this light,” Francis said, referring to the star that, according to the New Testament, marked the birth of the Christ child.
“This light was not seen, however, by the arrogant, the proud, by those who made laws according to their own personal measures, who were closed off to others,” the pope said, echoing some of the language he used in his Curia address.
Francis made the remarks in his homily for the Vatican’s traditional Christmas Eve Mass, celebrated Wednesday evening in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Christmas recalls the birth of Christ, which, according to traditional Christian doctrine, marks the humble human birth of the Son of God in order to offer salvation to the world.
“The presence of the Lord in the midst of his people cancels the sorrow of defeat and the misery of slavery,” the pope said in his brief remarks Wednesday night, “and ushers in joy and happiness.”
“The unfolding of the centuries has been marked by violence, wars, hatred, and oppression,” Francis said. “But God, who placed a sense of expectation within man made in his image and likeness, was waiting … he continued to wait patiently in the face of the corruption of man and peoples.”
Reprising one of his favorite themes, Francis said that Christmas captures the “tenderness” of God’s love.
“The message that everyone was expecting, that everyone was searching for in the depths of their souls, was none other than the tenderness of God,” he said. “God who looks upon us with eyes full of love, who accepts our poverty, God who is in love with our smallness.”
He suggested that message invites all Christians to an examination of conscience.
“Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel?” he asked.
“How much the world needs tenderness today!” the pope said.
Although Francis largely followed the traditional Vatican script for his second Christmas Eve Mass as pope, there were two changes that reflected his personal imprint.
First, for the traditional Christmas piece Et incarnatus est, meaning “He has become incarnate,” an arrangement by Mozart from his Mass in D minor was performed by a symphony orchestra rather than the traditional recitation using Gregorian chant.
The performance was conducted by Manfred Honeck, an Austrian and devout Catholic who currently leads the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra in the United States. Pope Francis knelt during the piece, which he has described in the past as “insuperable.”
The director of the Sistine Choir, Italian Monsignor Massimo Palombella, acknowledged it’s unusual to mix an arrangement by a secular composer, even one as renowned as Mozart, into such a solemn liturgy.
However, he said it’s consistent with the reform vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which is close to the heart of Pope Francis, that the Catholic Church should not claim “a closed or exclusive vision of reality,” but rather one “open to dialogue with modernity.”
Second, rather than allowing a deacon to carry the small image of the infant Jesus from the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica to a small nativity set at the conclusion of the Mass, Francis insisted on performing the gesture himself.
There were also a couple of other classic Francis touches during the Christmas Eve liturgy.
Bunches of flowers to adorn the image of the Christ child were presented by 10 small children ranging in age from five to 10, including children from both South Korea and the Philippines, Asian nations Francis has either visited or is preparing to visit, and also Syria and Lebanon, reflecting his concern for the Christians of the Middle East.
On Tuesday, Francis released a special Christmas letter to the Christians of the Middle East, describing them as victims of “a newer and disturbing terrorist organization, of previously unimaginable dimensions, which has perpetrated all kinds of abuses and inhuman acts.”
Though the pontiff did not name ISIS, the reference to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was clear.
Also on Wednesday night, the gifts for the celebration of the Mass were presented by married couples and their children, reflecting the pope’s concern for the family ahead of a September visit to the United States for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families and a Synod of Bishops on the family in October at the Vatican.
On Christmas Day, Pope Francis will deliver the traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing, “to the city and to the world,” at noon Rome time. He’ll also offer a noontime address the next day, Dec. 26, which on the Catholic calendar is the feast of St. Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr who was stoned to death.
Next week, the pope is scheduled to lead a vespers service on New Year’s Eve and then to celebrate a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Day.