Speaking to the world as he addressed thousands gathered in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed the hope for peace in the Middle East and in Africa where, just as the Holy Family fled the murderous King Herod, refugees are fleeing violence. Speaking to approximately 70,000 pilgrims, he singled out Syria which has now see three years of war and more than a million of its citizens flee. He also spoke to the violence raging in South Sudan, Nigeria, Iraq and the Central African Republic. The pontiff prayed that the “prince of peace” will soon "bless the land where you chose to come into the world and grant a favorable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Heal the wounds of the beloved country of Iraq, once more struck by frequent acts of violence."
"True peace is not a balancing of opposing forces. It's not a lovely facade which conceals conflicts and divisions," said the Argentine pope in his first message to mark the feast of the Nativity of the Lord. "Peace calls for daily commitment," said the Pope, who prayed that God would "protect all who are persecuted in your name."
He called to mind the hundreds of mostly African migrants who perished at sea in attempts to reach the shores of Europe. Recalling the hundreds of migrants who drowned trying to reach European shores, Francis also prayed that refugees receive hope, consolation and assistance.
In another first, Pope Francis visited his predecessor Pope emeritus Benedict on Christmas Eve. Pope Benedict greeted the reigning Pope at the door of his residence on the grounds of the Vatican. They exchanged Christmas greetings and then went to pray together in Pope Benedict’s chapel. Benedict walked with the aid of a cane but appeared alert and active despite his 86 years. The pair of Popes greeted the staff as photographers and journalists recorded the scene.
During the Christmas Eve Mass, Pope Francis broke with tradition and himself placed a figure of the Christ Child in the nativity scene located within the Basilica of St Peter's. He called for humility and an end to "self-interest" among Christians.
Bethlehem ‘the city of bread’
There is optimism in the land of Jesus birth that peace may break out as a result of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal spoke to approximately 1000 worshippers at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where he expressed the hope for peace. "The whole world now is looking at Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus," the patriarch said in his homily. "The Holy Land is where Jesus was born in the grotto and we have to reflect this bright picture of Jesus by representing the morals of Jesus, the message of Jesus - the message of love and reconciliation."
The number of pilgrims reaching Bethlehem has risen steadily over the last few years, following a significant drop about a decade ago.