ROME – According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are today 65.6 million people who’ve been forcibly driven from their homes, including 22.5 million refugees and 10 million stateless persons. According to the same data, 20 people somewhere in the world are forcibly displaced every minute of every day.
One could say that Pope Francis had all those people in mind on Christmas Eve, as he preached a homily extolling the Holy Family as an exemplar for today’s burgeoning numbers of people who find themselves unwillingly on the move.
“We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day,” Francis said, describing the Gospel story of Jesus and Mary being forced to set out for Bethlehem, where Mary would eventually give birth to the baby Jesus.
“We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away, but driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones,” the pope said. “In many cases this departure is filled with hope, hope for the future; yet for many others this departure can only have one name: survival. Surviving the Herods of today, who, to impose their power and increase their wealth, see no problem in shedding innocent blood.”
The pontiff’s reference was to King Herod, who, according to the New Testament narrative, saw the Christ child as a threat to his power and ordered every first-born child slain.
“Mary and Joseph, for whom there was no room, are the first to embrace the One who comes to give all of us our document of citizenship,” the pope said, using language that has particular political resonance in Italy at the moment.
Just days ago, the Italian senate failed to adopt a measure that would have granted the children of immigrants and refugees citizenship by birth, rather than compelling them to apply at the age of 18 through a complicated and expensive bureaucratic procedure.
Francis and the Italian Catholic church backed the ius soli measure, and Italians no doubt will hear his use of the phrase “document of citizenship” as an echo of that debate.
Christmas Eve often finds Francis in a somber mood, reflecting on what he regards as the injustices and shadows of the contemporary world. That seemed the case again Sunday, as he used plaintive language to make the connection between the Gospel story of Christ’s birth and the realities of the day.
“The faith we proclaim tonight makes us see God present in all those situations where we think he is absent,” the pope said. “He is present in the unwelcomed visitor, often unrecognizable, who walks through our cities and our neighborhoods, who travels on our buses and knocks on our doors.”
In the teeth of those realities, Francis called for a “new social imagination,” one that welcomes newcomers rather than ostracizing them.
“This same faith impels us to make space for a new social imagination, and not to be afraid of experiencing new forms of relationship, in which none have to feel that there is no room for them on this earth,” Francis said.
“Christmas is a time for turning the power of fear into the power of charity, into power for a new imagination of charity. The charity that does not grow accustomed to injustice, as if it were something natural, but that has the courage, amid tensions and conflicts, to make itself a ‘house of bread,’ a land of hospitality,” he said.
Francis then quoted St. Pope John Paul II’s famous maxim, “Be not afraid!”
The pope argued that Christians are obliged by their origins to show hospitality for today’s displaced persons, including immigrants and refugees.
“In this Child, God invites us to be messengers of hope,” he said. “He invites us to become sentinels for all those bowed down by the despair born of encountering so many closed doors. In this child, God makes us agents of his hospitality.”
Francis closed by praying that the story of Christ’s birth will galvanize Christians to action.
“We ask that your crying may shake us from our indifference and open our eyes to those who are suffering,” he said. “May your tenderness awaken our sensitivity and recognize our call to see you in all those who arrive in our cities, in our histories, in our lives.”
Tomorrow, Francis will offer the traditional Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi benediction, meaning “to the city and the world,” at noon Rome time. Christmas is one of two regular occasions during the year when popes offer an Urbi et Orbi address, the other being Easter.
On Tuesday, Dec. 26, Francis will deliver a noontime Angelus address marking the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, often referred to as the “proto-martyr.” The next day, the pontiff will hold his usual Wednesday General Audience, his reflections for which in this period are being dedicated to the elements of the Mass.
On New Year’s Eve, Francis will offer another noontime Angelus address, and late that afternoon will preside over the traditional vespers service in thanksgiving for the year closing that night. On New Year’s Day, Francis will celebrate a Mass honoring Mary as the Mother of God, followed by yet another Angelus.
Traditionally, the Vatican’s holiday season is said to wrap up on Jan. 6 with the feast of the Epiphany, when Francis will once again lead a Mass in the morning followed by an Angelus. Informally, however, it’s usually considered to extend through the pope’s annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, in which the pontiff lays out his foreign policy priorities for the year to come.
This year, that speech to diplomats will be held on Monday, Jan. 8.