ROME – Pope Francis on Christmas Eve used his noontime Angelus address to pray for peace for the world, to urge the release of kidnapped priests, religious and laity, and also to express condolences for a storm in the southern Philippines that’s left more than 200 people dead, hundreds more missing, and tens of thousands driven from their homes.
“I invoke the gift of peace for the whole world, especially for populations suffering the most because of conflicts underway,” Francis said, speaking in Italian.
“I renew in particular my appeal that, on the occasion of Christmas, kidnapped persons – priests, men and women religious, and lay faithful – be released and can return to their homes,” the pontiff said.
Although Francis did not mention any specific situations he had in mind, last Sunday he used his Angelus address to appeal for the release of six nuns kidnapped one month earlier in Nigeria, following a similar plea from the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference.
In some parts of the world where kidnapping for ransom has become a preferred revenue stream for criminal gangs, priests and nuns are often preferred targets on the assumption that their orders or dioceses, or someone in the Church, will pay for their release.
After his appeal, Francis asked the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square on a sunny Roman Sunday to join him in a moment of silent prayer.
The pontiff also touched on the situation in the Philippines, where the impact of tropical storm Tembin on the southern island of Mindanao has exceeded forecasts and produced devastating damage.
“I want to assure the population of the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, of my prayer,” Francis said. “It’s been hit by a storm that’s caused numerous victims and destruction.”
“May the merciful God welcome the souls of the dead, and comfort all those suffering because of this calamity,” he said.
The pontiff also asked for silent prayer for the Filipino victims.
In the main body of his address, Francis focused on the contrast in the day’s Gospel narrative, of the announcement by the Angel to Mary that she would conceive the son of God, between the lofty language used by the angel and the brief, humble response of Mary.
“This helps us understand that Mary is truly humble, and doesn’t seek to put the spotlight on herself,” Francis said. “She recognizes being small before God, and is content to be small. At the same time, she’s aware that the realization of God’s plan depends on her answer, and thus she’s called to accept it with her entire being.”
The pope urged believers to imitate Mary, “asking her to help every one of us to accept the plan of God in our life, with sincere humility and courageous generosity.”
According to the Vatican gendarmes, there were 17,000 people on hand Sunday to hear the pope’s Angelus message.
Later tonight, Francis will celebrate Mass for Christmas Eve. (Traditionally known as the “Midnight Mass,” in recent years the liturgy has been celebrated at 9:30 p.m. Rome time.) On Christmas Day, Francis will offer the traditional Urbi et Orbi benediction, meaning “to the city and the world,” at noon Rome time.
Christmas Day 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.