Francis offers his 1st Christmas Mass

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis lauded Jesus' humble beginning as a poor and vulnerable baby while celebrating his first Christmas Eve Mass as pontiff on Tuesday in St. Peter's Basilica.

‘‘You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich, and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful, and you made yourself vulnerable,” Francis said of Jesus as he delivered his homily in the basilica, packed with faithful.

Francis has dedicated much of his nine-month-old papacy to drawing attention to the plight of the poor, of children and other vulnerable members of society.

He noted that the first to receive news of Jesus' birth were shepherds, who in society at the time were considered “among the last, the outcast.”

The bells of St. Peter's rang as Francis, who turned 77 a week ago, walked briskly up the main aisle of the basilica for the ceremony, which began 2½ hours before midnight. Keeping with the theme of humility he has set for his papacy, Francis, instead of an aide, carried the statue and kissed a knee of the figure of the newly born Jesus.

The Argentine-born pope has encouraged his flock to be a joyful church, and he called Jesus “the light who brightens the darkness.”

In the world's history and our own personal history, “there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows,” Francis said.

“If our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us,” the pontiff said.

Francis has applied the same vision to the heart of the Vatican's own working. In past remarks, he said there is no place for personal ambition in the clerical hierarchy. He insists that the Roman Catholic Church must be one of service to those in need.

In the Holy Land earlier Tuesday, thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations. They brought warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night.

The heavy turnout — the highest in years — helped lift spirits in Bethlehem as leaders expressed hope that the new year finally could bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.

“The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other,” said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, as he arrived in town.

At the Vatican during the homily, Francis quoted the Apostle John, saying “whoever hates his brother is in the darkness” and “ does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

The basilica ceremony was Francis' only public Mass for Christmas. On Christmas Day, he will deliver his Christmas message — meant for the world — from the basilica's central balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square.

As he left the basilica in a procession, Francis was preceded by 10 children carrying flowers — a pair of children each from Italy, the Philippines, Lebanon, his native Argentina and Congo.

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