ROME – Pope Francis on Christmas Day called for peace in a series of global hotspots, including Syria and Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and also denounced “brutal acts of terrorism” in 2015, including the November Paris attacks.
Popes traditionally use their Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi address, “to the city and the world,” to offer a 360-degree review of the world situation, and Francis held to form, ticking off a series of challenges to peace and stability. His preoccupation seemed clear from a plea that God liberate humanity from various forms of evil, “at times monstrous.”
He addressed the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square — marked by heavy security — from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica where he and previous popes emerge after being elected by their fellow cardinals.
The pontiff began with the Holy Land, where the Christmas story itself began.
“May Israelis and Palestinians resume direct dialogue and reach an agreement which will enable the two peoples to live together in harmony, ending a conflict which has long set them at odds, with grave repercussions for the entire region,” he said.
Francis has taken a personal interest in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; in June 2014, he invited their then-presidents to an unprecedented “peace prayer” in the Vatican gardens along with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.
In his Christmas address, Francis then turned his attention to other battle-scarred zones of the Middle East, beginning with Syria and Libya.
“We pray to the Lord that the agreement reached in the United Nations may succeed in halting as quickly as possible the clash of arms in Syria and in remedying the extremely grave humanitarian situation of its suffering people,” he said.
“It is likewise urgent that the agreement on Libya be supported by all, so as to overcome the grave divisions and violence afflicting the country,” he said.
In Syria, too, Francis has been actively involved in the international diplomacy surrounding the conflict. In September 2013, he was credited with helping to avoid a Western military intervention designed to bring down the Assad regime. More recently, the pontiff has signaled cautious support for anti-ISIS military efforts.
2015 was a year in which the threat of terrorism was felt in many parts of the world, and Francis acknowledged that reality in his Christmas address.
“My thoughts also turn to those affected by brutal acts of terrorism, particularly the recent massacres which took place in Egyptian airspace, in Beirut, Paris, Bamako, and Tunis,” he said.
Bamako was a reference to a November terrorist attack on a hotel in Mali.
Much terrorist activity in 2015 was fueled by religious extremism, and at times Christians were special targets. The pontiff expressed a special note of solidarity for those victims.
“To our brothers and sisters who in many parts of the world are being persecuted for their faith, may the Child Jesus grant consolation and strength,” he said, adding in an impromptu phrase, “They are our martyrs of today.”
History’s first Latin American pope also has been an active behind-the-scenes player in the Colombia peace process, aiming to end the longest-running civil war in the world. Among other things, Francis has acknowledged speaking on the phone to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to encourage peace talks taking place in Havana.
The pontiff reiterated that support for a breakthrough on Friday.
“May the joy of this day illumine the efforts of the Colombian people so that, inspired by hope, they may continue their commitment to working for the desired peace,” he said.
Beyond specific hotspots, Francis also listed a number of broad themes of special interest, including “child soldiers, women who suffer violence, and the victims of human trafficking and the drug trade.”
2015 was also a year in which Europe experienced its most massive refugee crisis since the Second World War, mostly fueled by migrants from the Middle East and Africa fleeing conflict situations. Francis has called on Europe to be generous, urging all Catholic facilities on the continent to welcome at least one refugee family.
He included a special appeal for migrants in his Christmas message.
“Nor may our encouragement be lacking to all those fleeing extreme poverty or war, traveling all too often in inhumane conditions and not infrequently at the risk of their lives,” he said.
“May God repay all those, both individuals and states, who generously work to provide assistance and welcome to the numerous migrants and refugees, helping them to build a dignified future for themselves and for their dear ones, and to be integrated in the societies which receive them,” the pontiff said.
Francis is well-known for his commitment both to the poor, and that theme also featured in his Urbi et Orbi message.
“On this festal day, may the Lord grant renewed hope to all those who lack employment,” he said, adding extemporaneously, “there are so many.”
“May he sustain the commitment of those with public responsibilities in political and economic life, that they may work to pursue the common good and to protect the dignity of every human life,” the pope said.
The reference to the “dignity of every human life” is also a typical papal way of summarizing the pro-life positions of the Catholic Church, including opposition to abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia.
Francis has called a special jubilee Year of Mercy for 2016, and on Christmas Day he suggested that prisoners are a group especially in need of that message.
“May the Lord enable prisoners in particular to experience his merciful love, which heals wounds and triumphs over evil,” he said.
He also issued the traditional indulgence for all Catholics that accompanies Urbi et Orbi addresses, saying he hoped they, in turn, would show mercy to others.
Francis opened the address with a reflection on the meaning of Christmas Day.
It is “a day of mercy, in which God our Father has revealed his great tenderness to the entire world,” he said. “A day of light, which dispels the darkness of fear and anxiety. A day of peace, which makes for encounter, dialogue and reconciliation. A day of joy: a ‘great joy’ for the poor, the lowly and for all the people.”
The Christmas message was part of a busy holiday season for the 79-year-old Francis.
On Saturday, when the Church marks the feast of St. Stephen, considered the first martyr of Christianity, the pope will deliver a noontime Angelus message and blessing.
On Sunday, the pontiff will celebrate a Mass devoted to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in St. Peter’s Basilica. The theme of the family has been a towering priority for Francis, having devoted two special Synods of Bishops in 2014 and again in 2015 to the subject, and he’s expected shortly to publish a document reflecting on the conclusions of those synods.
On New Year’s Eve, Francis will preside over a vespers service, and on New Year’s Day he’ll head across town to Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major to celebrate a Mass and to open a holy door for the special jubilee Year of Mercy.
On Wednesday, Jan. 6, Francis will close the traditional holiday season with a Mass for the feast of the Epiphany, marking the revelation of Christ as the Son of God when he was visited by the three magi, or “wise men.”