Pope Francis celebrated Christmas Eve with a late-night mass on Wednesday in St. Peter’s Basilica and a phone call to some Iraqi refugees forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants.
The Pope told refugees at the tent camp in Ankawa, a suburb of Irbil in northern Iraq, that they were like Jesus, forced to flee because there was no place for them.
“You’re like Jesus on this night, and I bless you and am close to you,” Pope Francis told the Iraqis, according to the audio of the call provided by TV2000, the television of the Italian bishops’ conference which arranged the hookup. “I embrace you all and wish for you a holy Christmas.”
The Ankawa camp houses mostly Christian refugees forced to flee the onslaught by militants of the Islamic State. In a letter to Mideast Christians penned earlier this week, Pope Francis urged them to remain in the region, where Christian communities have existed for 2,000 years, and to help their fellow Muslim citizens present “a more authentic image of Islam” as a religion of peace.
During the mass hours later in St. Peter’s, Pope Francis echoed some of the themes he raised in the phone call as he reflected on the Nativity scene.
“How much the world needs tenderness today!” he said. “God’s patience, God’s closeness, God’s tenderness.”
The phone call and the mass kicked off a busy few weeks for the 78-year-old pontiff that includes his traditional Christmas day speech, New Year’s Eve vespers, and 2015 greetings a few hours later. On January 6, 2015, he’ll celebrate Epiphany mass, and on January 11 he’ll baptise babies in the Sistine Chapel. A day later he gives his annual foreign policy address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See before boarding a plane for a weeklong trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
Wednesday’s mass came just days after Pope Francis excoriated the Vatican bureaucracy for a laundry list of sins, including lusting for power and suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.
Many of the same cardinals, bishops and priests who received the dressing down were on hand for the mass. Several have spoken out in recent days saying Francis was merely asking them to examine their consciences, as any Jesuit spiritual director would do, and to use the Christmas season to heal.