ROME – Popes understand they’ve got an awfully big stage on Christmas Day, so in their traditional noontime Urbi et Orbi blessing, addressed to “the city and to the world,” they usually go all-out, touching on every major global situation of concern to them right now.
It’s thus always worth having one’s ears open, because the Christmas address often contains hints of where a given pope is considering investing his political and diplomatic capital in the year to come.
If that’s the rule, then watch for Francis and his team to be engaged with the Middle East, and especially the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, once again in 2018.
Just days after 128 countries meeting at the United Nations voted to condemn U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, with only nine voting in the U.S.’s favor and the rest either abstaining or not participating, Pope Francis used his Christmas address to pray for peace in Jerusalem and to reiterate the Vatican’s long-standing support for a two-state solution to the conflict.
“We see Jesus in the children of the Middle East who continue to suffer because of growing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians,” the pope said.
“On this festive day, let us ask the Lord for peace for Jerusalem and for all the Holy Land. Let us pray that the will to resume dialogue may prevail between the parties and that a negotiated solution can finally be reached, one that would allow the peaceful coexistence of two States within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders.”
Francis urged the major players in the region to ratchet up their efforts for peace.
“May the Lord also sustain the efforts of all those in the international community inspired by good will to help that afflicted land to find, despite grave obstacles, the harmony, justice and security that it has long awaited,” he said.
Israel and Palestine were not the only hotspots the pontiff singled out. Also in the Middle East, he pointed to Syria, Iraq and Yemen as areas of special concern.
“We see Jesus in the faces of Syrian children still marked by the war that, in these years, has caused such bloodshed in that country,” he said. “May beloved Syria at last recover respect for the dignity of every person through a shared commitment to rebuild the fabric of society, without regard for ethnic and religious membership.”
“We see Jesus in the children of Iraq, wounded and torn by the conflicts that country has experienced in the last fifteen years, and in the children of Yemen, where there is an ongoing conflict that has been largely forgotten, with serious humanitarian implications for its people, who suffer from hunger and the spread of diseases,” the pope said.
Turning to Africa, Francis mentioned South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Nigeria as places he’s worried about. The Central African Republic is a country Francis has already visited, and his hopes to travel to South Sudan have been on hold for security reasons but never abandoned.
2017 was also a year in which the specter of an armed nuclear conflict arose on the Korean peninsula, making that unavoidable for Francis in his year-end assessment.
“Let us pray that confrontation may be overcome on the Korean peninsula, and that mutual trust may increase in the interest of the world as a whole.”
Two other conflict zones to which the Vatican paid special attention during the past year were Venezuela and Ukraine, in part due to the key role the Church plays in both.
“To the Baby Jesus, we entrust Venezuela that it may resume a serene dialogue among the various elements of society for the benefit of all the beloved Venezuelan people,” Francis said on Monday.
“We see Jesus in children who, together with their families, suffer from the violence of the conflict in Ukraine and its grave humanitarian repercussions; we pray that the Lord may soon grant peace to this dear country,” he said.
Francis also mentioned his recent visit to Myanmar and Burma, reflecting on threats to “the dignity of the minority groups present in the region” – though, as he did in Myanmar itself, without specifically mentioning the oppressed Muslim minority Rohingya, presumably out of concern for inflaming Myanmar’s government and potentially making the situation worse.
Prior to his visit in late November, Francis was asked by Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar not to use the term “Rohingya” in public, for exactly that reason.
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The pontiff then broadened his focus in his Christmas address, mentioning matters of wide concern not localized in a specific spot.
“We see Jesus in the children of unemployed parents who struggle to offer their children a secure and peaceful future. And in those whose childhood has been robbed and who, from a very young age, have been forced to work or to be enrolled as soldiers by unscrupulous mercenaries,” he said.
“We see Jesus in the many children forced to leave their countries to travel alone in inhuman conditions and who become an easy target for human traffickers,” he said. “Through their eyes we see the drama of all those forced to emigrate and risk their lives to face exhausting journeys that end at times in tragedy.”
The pontiff began his Urbi et Orbi address saying the Christmas story itself beckons Christians to a posture of humble service to others.
“The first people to see the humble glory of the Saviour, after Mary and Joseph, were the shepherds of Bethlehem,” he said. “They recognized the sign proclaimed to them by the angels and adored the Child. Those humble and watchful men are an example for believers of every age who, before the mystery of Jesus, are not scandalized by his poverty. Rather, like Mary, they trust in God’s word and contemplate his glory with simple eyes.”
“Today, as the winds of war are blowing in our world and an outdated model of development continues to produce human, societal and environmental decline, Christmas invites us to focus on the sign of the Child and to recognize him in the faces of little children, especially those for whom, like Jesus, there is no place in the inn’,” Francis said.
Tomorrow, 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, when Francis is expected to return to many of the same themes he touched upon in the Urbi et Orbi text.