VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis asked people to celebrate a “real Christmas” by recognizing Jesus in their lives and cultivating peace in their hearts.
“What is Christmas? Is it a tree? A statue of a baby with a woman and a man nearby? Yes, it is Jesus, the birth of Jesus,” he said, so “stop for a bit and think of Christmas as a message, a message of peace.”
The pope’s words were aired Dec. 19, the last Sunday of Advent, on Italy’s Canale 5 in the special program, “Francis and the Invisible: The pope encounters the least.”
The program, recorded in the pope’s residence, featured a televised “dialogue” and interview with four people facing serious challenges in their lives: Giovanna, a mother of four who experienced domestic violence and lost her home and job during the
COVID-19 pandemic; Maria, who lives in a shelter after sleeping on the streets; Pierdonato, who is serving two life sentences in prison; and Maristella, an 18-year-old student and Girl Scout who was representing all young people who felt isolated and abandoned because of the lockdown and restrictions in place during the pandemic.
Each gave the pope a brief account of the challenges they had been facing as well as their ongoing concerns, doubts and questions about what next steps to take.
For example, Giovanna said she lost her faith the day she and her kids managed to escape a life of poverty and violence and asked, “What can we do to regain our dignity?” and how could she give her children strength.
When reflecting on the dignity of women who have experienced abuse, the pope said the image that comes to mind is Michelangelo’s Pietà with “Our Lady humiliated before her child — naked, crucified and a miscreant in everyone’s eyes.”
“But she has not lost her dignity and to look at this image during difficult times like yours of humiliation and where you feel you’ve lost your dignity, looking at that image gives us strength,” he said.
Responding to Maristella, the pope encouraged her and her generation to continue to seek “real” dialogue and in-person relationships, not just virtual ones, and he assured her it is normal to have doubts, to question or even be angry with God.
The important thing is to have a heart at peace because “an anxious heart cannot seek God, cannot maintain a relationship with God,” so it is important to find serenity, even when experiencing suffering or difficulties, he said.
The pope concluded by wishing those with him and watching on TV “a real Christmas” with Jesus.
It is OK to celebrate, exchange gifts, eat and be merry, he said, “but do not forget Jesus. Christmas is Jesus who comes, who comes to touch our hearts,” families, homes and lives.
A sign of God’s love
At a rather formal meeting in the Apostolic Palace and a more relaxed one with balloons and silly hats in the Vatican audience hall, Pope Francis told children that Christmas is a sign of how much God loves them, and they are called to share that love.
Meeting in the ornate Clementine Hall Dec. 18 with young members of Catholic Action Children’s program, a parish-based program for children 4-14, the formality was not complete.
As a toddler roamed the room, checking out everything, Pope Francis told the parents to let him be and told the other kids that they, too, should have the courage to investigate their surroundings.
The appointment Dec. 19 in the Vatican audience hall was one that included gifts of warm coats and sweets for the little ones and a slightly belated and slightly marred birthday cake for the pope — two of the little ones who helped present the cake each ran a finger through the icing before the singing was over.
Pope Francis had turned 85 on Dec. 17, and the children from the Vatican’s St. Martha pediatric clinic helped him celebrate.
“Jesus, who came into the world as a child, believes in a world on a child’s scale, on the scale of everyone,” he said. “He made us understand this by being born in Bethlehem. But even today He makes Himself close to the children of every country and people, and He does so every day. It is the style of God, which is described in three words: closeness, compassion and tenderness. This is God’s style, there is no other.”
But the pope asked the children to be attentive because “the bad thing is when we want to imitate others and do the things that other people do, from originals we become photocopies.”
Especially as Christmas approaches, Pope Francis asked the children to be close to others just as Jesus is close to them, to help their friends and relatives and anyone who seems in need. And, he said, don’t forget to talk to Jesus.
With the children in the audience hall the next morning, the pope encouraged them to learn to listen and to see what other people need.
“Listen” is an important word, he told them. “Someone who doesn’t listen to others only listens to themselves. And it’s boring to only listen to yourself.”