ROME – On the heels of an award that offers another reminder of his stature as a global moral point of reference, Pope Francis rang in the Christmas season Thursday night by insisting that Christ’s birth into poverty calls his followers to spurn consumerism, wealth, and extravagance.
“He was born into the poverty of this world; there was no room in the inn for him and his family,” the pope said. “And yet, from this nothingness, the light of God’s glory shines forth.”
“In a society so often intoxicated by consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance, appearances and narcissism, this Child calls us to act soberly,” Francis said, “in a way that is simple, balanced, consistent, capable of seeing and doing what is essential.”
The pope’s comments came in a homily during his annual celebration of the Vatican’s “midnight Mass,” marking the vigil service the evening before Christmas Day, held inside St. Peter’s Basilica. It began at 9:30 p.m. Rome time.
The event came one day after Pope Francis was designated the winner of the International Charlemagne Prize by the German city of Aachen, considered one of Europe’s most prestigious humanitarian awards. The decision to bestow it on Francis marks the first time a Latin American has received the honor.
A communiqué by the prize committee said that Pope Francis has sent “a message of hope and encouragement” at a time in which “many citizens in Europe are seeking orientation.”
“The pope,” that statement said, “is a witness for a community based on values which include a sense of humanity, the protection of resources and dialogue between cultures and religions.”
The Vatican has said that Francis will accept the award at some future point, in a ceremony to be staged not in Aachen, but in Rome.
Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio that works on conflict resolution and ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and himself a past winner of the Charlemagne Prize, praised the choice.
“It’s an important recognition of [a pope] who, from the beginning of his pontificate, has worked for the construction of peace and unity among peoples with a universal message,” Riccardi said.
“Francis by now has become for many, not only Christians, an authoritative voice who calls for justice and invites us to look to the future,” he said.
On Christmas Eve, Francis returned to a familiar theme – the humble origins of Jesus Christ, and how his followers are therefore called to embrace humility and simplicity.
After the birth of Christ, Francis said, “the way of authentic liberation and perennial redemption is open to every man and woman who is simple of heart.”
“This Child, whose face radiates the goodness, mercy, and love of God the Father, trains us, his disciples, as St. Paul says, to reject ‘godless ways’ and the richness of the world, in order to live ‘temperately, justly, and devoutly’,” the pontiff said.
Francis said the story of Christ’s birth should also inspire his followers to a strong sense of justice, which at times may be counter-cultural.
“In a world which all too often is merciless to the sinner and lenient to the sin, we need to cultivate a strong sense of justice, to discern and to do God’s will,” he said.
“Amid a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion, and mercy, drawn daily from the wellspring of prayer,” Francis said.
The pope also called on Christians to embrace the certainty of their faith.
“There is no room for doubt,” he said. “Let us leave that to the skeptics who, by looking to reason alone, never find the truth.”
“There is no room for the indifference which reigns in the hearts of those unable to love for fear of losing something,” he said. “All sadness has been banished, for the Child Jesus brings true comfort to every heart.”
Youngsters from countries that Francis has visited as pontiff, including Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the United States, and most recently, three African nations, left floral bouquets around a baby Jesus statue near the central altar after Francis unveiled and gently kissed the statue.
A child from Mexico, which the pope visits in February, was also among the bouquet bearers.
The pope’s Christmas Eve Mass was broadcast this year to 72 countries, according to Vatican officials, with 111 broadcasters airing the service across all continents. Pope Pius XII was the first pontiff to broadcast the Christmas Mass in 1954, and today it was also available live online through the website of Vatican TV.
The pontiff’s Christmas Eve service occurred shortly before Christians in the Holy Land gathered to celebrate their own midnight Mass on the site where tradition holds Christ was actually born, in Bethlehem.
After opening a Holy Door of Mercy at the church of St. Catherine, Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem was to process into the Basilica of the Nativity. There he was set to preside at midnight Mass, followed by a procession to the Grotto.
For Pope Francis, Thursday night marked the beginning of a busy holiday season.
On Friday, Christmas Day, he’s scheduled to deliver his annual Urbi et Orbi message and blessing, “to the city and the world,” from St. Peter’s Square at noon Rome time. 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.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.