By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published January 6, 2012
Celebrating Christmas at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for peace in global trouble spots and protection of persecuted Christian minorities in places like China.
At his Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and in his Christmas Day blessing to the world, the pope called the birth of Christ the “culmination of creation” and an event that overcame the “infinite distance between God and man.”
The basilica was packed for the Mass, and an overflow crowd braved intermittent rain and wind to watch the liturgy on giant screens in St. Peter’s Square. Thousands stood under umbrellas for the traditional papal blessing the next day.
Security was tight for both events, in the wake of two package bombings at two Rome embassies. In 2008 and 2009 a mentally disturbed woman sprang at the pope inside the basilica and last year pulled him to the ground briefly, but this year there were no incidents.
The pope stood on the central balcony of the basilica to deliver his blessing “urbi et orbi,” to the city of Rome and to the world. He said Christmas had revealed a truth about the relationship between God and human history. But it is a truth that must be understood by faith, he said.
“If the truth were a mere mathematical formula, in some sense it would impose itself by its own power. But if truth is love, it calls for faith, for the ‘yes’ of our hearts,” he said.
The birth of Christ is a source of hope for everyone whose dignity is offended and violated, because Jesus came to “set every man and woman free from the source of all enslavement,” he said.
The pope prayed for peace in the land of Christ’s birth, urging Israelis and Palestinians to work for a just and peaceful coexistence. He expressed the hope that Christmas would ease the pain of the Christian communities in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, and inspire world leaders to show them support.
“May the birth of the savior strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience but, persevering in fidelity to Christ and his church, may keep alive the flame of hope,” he said.
The pope’s words reflected increasing Vatican concern over a deterioration of church-state relations in China, where an illegitimate bishop was recently elected head of the bishops’ conference and where bishops loyal to the pope were forced to participate in a state-backed “official” congress of Catholic leaders.
The pope asked that the spirit of Christmas would “grant perseverance to all those Christian communities enduring discrimination and persecution, and inspire political and religious leaders to be committed to full respect for the religious freedom of all.”
He also prayed for relief of beleaguered populations in Latin America: in Haiti, which is still suffering from the devastating earthquake and a recent cholera epidemic, and in Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Costa Rica, where natural disasters have struck.
The pope urged continued efforts for peace and political stability in Somalia, Darfur, Ivory Coast and Madagascar; reconciliation between North and South Korea; security and respect for human rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and dialogue between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which are engaged in a simmering border dispute.
Pope Benedict then offered Christmas greetings in 65 languages, including Chinese, Russian and Arabic. Speaking in English, he said: “May the birth of the Prince of Peace remind the world where its true happiness lies; and may your hearts be filled with hope and joy, for the savior has been born for us.”
At his Mass the night before, which began at 10 p.m. and ended shortly after midnight, the pope said the birth of Christ ushered in a new kingdom on earth, one that contrasts with the “self asserting powers of this world.”
He said the event in Bethlehem brought “the grace of true brotherhood.” He offered this prayer to Jesus: “Help us to recognize your face in others who need our assistance, in those who are suffering or forsaken, in all people, and help us to live together with you as brothers and sisters, so as to become one family, your family.”
Christ came to bring people joy, the pope said, but also to give them strength to “overcome the tyranny of might.”
“This joy is also a prayer: Lord, make your promise come fully true. Break the rods of the oppressors. Burn the tramping boots. Let the time of the garments rolled in blood come to an end. Fulfill the prophecy that ‘of peace there will be no end,’” he said.
Earlier in the evening, the pope lit a candle at his apartment window and looked down on St. Peter’s Square for the official unveiling of the Vatican’s Nativity scene.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, a spiritual reflection prepared by the pope was featured on British radio. In the brief talk, aired on BBC’s “Thought for the Day,” the pope recalled his September trip to England and Scotland.
“I am glad to have the opportunity to greet you again, and indeed to greet listeners everywhere as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ,” he said.
“I pray for your families, for your children, for those who are sick, and for those who are going through any form of hardship at this time. I pray especially for the elderly and for those who are approaching the end of their days,” he said.