Pope Francis on Thursday used a traditional Christmas address to emphasize the plight of children in areas of conflict, pointing out their “impotent silence” that “cries out under the spade of many Herods,” a reference to the ancient king who slaughtered all the male newborns of Bethlehem, according to the New Testament.
Vast numbers of children today are victims of violence, objects of trade and trafficking, or forced to become soldiers, and they need to be saved, he said.
The pope spoke of “children displaced due to war and persecution, abused and taken advantage of before our very eyes and our complicit silence.” He singled out “infants massacred in bomb attacks,” including in the Middle East and in Pakistan, where 132 children were killed in a Taliban attack on a school this month.
“So many abused children,” Francis said, in one of several off-the-cuff asides during the address, known as the “Urbi et Orbi” message — Latin for “to the city and the world” — that popes traditionally deliver to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics on special occasions like Christmas.
In calling for global peace and for an end to violence and conflict in the Middle East, Ukraine and parts of Africa, Francis went off script to denounce “the globalization of indifference” that permits suffering and injustice to persist.
“So many men and women immersed in worldliness and indifference” are affected by hardness of the heart, he said, calling for reflection and change. And he chided the Vatican’s bureaucratic machine in another address this week for losing touch with its spiritual side in the pursuit of power.
As Christians exchanged gifts and shared family meals, the pope’s thoughts were with the world’s dispossessed; refugees and exiles; those suffering “brutal” ethnic or religious persecution; and those held as hostages or killed because of their religious beliefs.
“Truly there are so many tears this Christmas,” Francis said from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica before thousands of faithful in the square below. The address was also broadcast live on the Internet.
To underscore his closeness to those suffering religious persecution, a theme of his nearly two years as pope, on Christmas Eve, Francis spoke with displaced Christians who are in a tent camp in northern Iraq and told them that they were like Jesus. Many in the camps have been forced to leave their homes by militants of the Islamic State.
“You are like Jesus on the night of his birth when he had been forced to flee,” the pope told them in a telephone call broadcast live by an Italian Catholic television station. “You are like Jesus in this situation, and that means we are praying even harder for you.”
The pope also denounced abortion, and his thoughts turned to “infants killed in the womb, deprived of that generous love of their parents and then buried in the egoism of a culture that does not love life.”
In his message on Thursday, the pope said he hoped that the world would respond to the plight of the needy by increasing humanitarian aid, and he asked “that the necessary assistance and treatment be provided” for the victims of Ebola.
Closing the address, he called on Jesus’ strength to turn “arms into plowshares, destruction into creativity, hatred into love and tenderness.”
In Britain, the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of the Church of England, pulled out of the traditional Christmas Day ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral because of what his office described as a “severe cold.”
A draft of the sermon he had planned to deliver, and which was released on his website, reflected on the temporary truce on Christmas Day in 1914, early in the First World War, between British and German soldiers.
“The problem is that the way it is told now it seems to end with a ‘happy ever after,’” the draft said.
It added: “The following day the war continued with the same severity. Nothing had changed; it was a one-day wonder. That is not the world in which we live — truces are rare.”