ROME — “Continue being ‘smugglers’ of the faith,” Pope Francis told thousands of Filipino migrants living and working in Italy.

Starting the Italian Filipino community’s “Simbang Gabi,” a novena of nighttime or pre-dawn Masses in preparation for Christmas, the pope praised the community for not only keeping their faith alive, but for enlivening the faith of the parishes they frequent.

According to Italian government statistics, more than 100,000 Filipinos live in Italy as temporary workers or permanent residents. The more than 6,000 free tickets for the Dec. 15 Mass with Francis were gone in a matter of hours, said Scalabrinian Father Ricky Gente, the Rome community’s chaplain.

A large Filipino choir, with members wearing their national dress, provided the music for the liturgy. The songs and readings were in Filipino, English and Italian.

In his homily, Francis said the day’s Gospel reading, Matthew 11:2-11, shows how “in Jesus Christ, the saving love of God is made tangible: ‘The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.'”

The signs of God’s kingdom, he said, are not “trumpet blares” and military marches, “not judgments and condemnations of sinners, but liberation from evil and the proclamation of mercy and peace.”

“And because there are still many inhabitants of the existential peripheries” — the poor, the fragile and those thirsting for justice — “we must ask the Lord to renew the miracle of Christmas each year, offering ourselves as instruments of his loving mercy toward the least ones,” the pope said.

Francis praised the Filipino community for bringing with them to Rome the tradition of the Simbang Gabi.

“Through this celebration,” he said, “we want to prepare for Christmas in accordance with the spirit of the Word of God we have heard, remaining constant until the definitive coming of the Lord.”

“We want to commit ourselves to manifesting the love and tenderness of God,” he said. “We are called to be leaven in a society that often is not able to savor the beauty of God and experience the grace of his presence.”

“Brothers and sisters, you who have left your homeland in the search for a better future have a special mission,” the pope told them. “May your faith be ‘yeast’ in the parish communities you belong to today. I encourage you to multiply the opportunities of encounter to share your cultural and spiritual richness, allowing yourselves at the same time to be enriched by the experiences of others.”

All Catholics, everywhere in the world, he said, are called “to build together that communion in diversity that is a distinctive feature of the kingdom of God.”

“We are all called to proclaim together the Gospel, the good news of salvation, in every language in order to reach as many people as possible,” he said.

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