Vatican City: Pope Francis on Tuesday hailed the virtue of selfless Christian charity as he celebrated Christmas Eve Mass in St Peter’s Basilica.
The service is one of the most important ceremonies in the Catholic liturgy, marking the birth of Jesus Christ. Thousands of people flocked to the basilica and St Peter’s Square to follow it.
To lead a life as a gift to others “is the best way to change the world,” and to give thanks to God for the way in which he loves everybody, even “the worst of us,” the pontiff said.
“How often do we think that God is good if we are good and punishes us if we are bad. Yet that is not how he is. For all our sins, he continues to love us,” he added.
It was a message that chimed with a key theme of Francis’ papacy, namely that the Catholic Church should focus less on the enforcement of its rules, and more on reaching out to those who stray from them.
One way in which the pope has put this into practice is by softening a ban on communion for remarried divorcees, a move that has antagonised traditionalists within the church.
Before beginning the Mass, Francis lifted a cloth covering a baby Jesus figure, and 12 children from Italy, Japan, Venezuela, Kenya, Uganda, the Philippines and Iraq laid flowers by the shrine.
At the end of the 90-minute service, the pontiff picked up the doll-size Jesus figure and, escorted by the children, took it to a nativity scene inside the basilica.
The pope’s Christmas engagements continued Wednesday with the traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and to the world) message from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica.
The Urbi et Orbi, which offers blessings and a pardon for sins, is delivered at Easter, Christmas and after the election of a new pope.
Pontiffs usually use the occasion to plead for world peace.
Pilgrimage to holy land
Thousands of Christian pilgrims flocked to the West Bank town of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Visitors converged on the town’s large Christmas tree in Manger Square, near the spot believed to mark Jesus’ birthplace. Uniformed Palestinian scouts wearing yellow and gold capes paraded past assembled visitors, the sound of drums and bagpipes filling the cool, clear air. Vendors hawked snacks and holiday gifts, adding to the festive atmosphere.
Roger Hoagland, a Christian educator and missionary from Louisville, Kentucky, said he had come to lead a Baptist choir for a fourth time and described his visit as the experience of a lifetime.
“We love this opportunity,” he said. “We have 40 people and many of them are from the US and other countries. They come to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.”
While Bethlehem is in the Palestinian-administered area of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Israel’s imposing separation barrier encloses parts of the city and is a constant reminder of the complex political reality. Most of the Christmas Eve visitors appeared to be local residents, with foreign pilgrims seeming to make up a modest portion of the crowd.
Still, the celebrations capped the most successful year in history for Palestinian tourism, according to Tourism Minister Rula Maayah.
Bethlehem – located just outside of Jerusalem – has invested heavily in tourism. It’s built new hotels and tried to diversify itself by offering culinary and cultural destinations in addition to its traditional holy sites.
Maayah estimated that some 15,000 pilgrims were staying overnight in Bethlehem’s fully booked hotels this Christmas. Tourists were also staying in other West Bank towns, such as Ramallah and Jericho, in addition to Jerusalem.
In all, she said the number of foreign tourists visiting the West Bank this year is estimated to reach 3.5 million people, up from 3 million last year.