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Gerard O’ConnellDecember 25, 2023
Pope Francis waves to an estimated 70,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican for his Christmas blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) Dec. 25, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis made an impassioned plea for an end to the conflict in Israel and Palestine “where war is devastating the lives of those peoples” in his Christmas message and blessing, “Urbi et Orbi” (“to the city of Rome and to the world”). He “embraced” both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and, in a particular way, “the Christian communities of Gaza and the entire Holy Land.”

He urged people to pray and work for peace in no less than ten conflict situations worldwide, including Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.

Speaking from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis, 87, delivered his Christmas message to the estimated 70,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square—many of whom waved Palestinian and Ukrainian flags.

He told them that in these days “the eyes and the hearts of Christians throughout the world turn to Bethlehem,” where Jesus, the savior of humanity was born, but which today “is a place of sorrow and silence.”

He recalled that in the bible, “the Prince of Peace is opposed by the ‘Prince of this world’ (Jn 12:31), who, by sowing the seeds of death, plots against the Lord, ‘the lover of life.’” Pope Francis said, “We see this played out in Bethlehem, where the birth of [Jesus] the Saviour is followed by the slaughter of the innocents.” The same is happening today, he noted: “How many innocents are being slaughtered in our world! In their mothers’ wombs, in odysseys undertaken in desperation and in search of hope, in the lives of all those little ones whose childhood has been devastated by war. They are the little Jesuses of today. Their infancy is destroyed by wars.”

Then in a denunciation of war as a way of trying to resolve problems in today’s world, Pope Francis said, “To say “yes” to the Prince of Peace means saying “no” to war, to every war, to the very mindset of war, an aimless voyage, a defeat without victors, an inexcusable folly.” He added, “To say ‘no’ to war means saying ‘no’ to weaponry,” because “The human heart is weak and impulsive; if we find instruments of death in our hands, sooner or later we will use them.”

As he has often done throughout his pontificate, Francis forcefully denounced the arms industry in which immense profits are made, but which take away resources from the most basic human needs like food, shelter, education and health care. He said: “How can we even speak of peace, when arms production, sales and trade are on the rise? Today, as at the time of Herod, the evil that opposes God’s light hatches its plots in the shadows of hypocrisy and concealment. How much violence and killing takes place amid deafening silence, unbeknownst to many! People, who desire not weapons but bread, who struggle to make ends meet and desire only peace, have no idea how many public funds are being spent on arms. Yet that is something they ought to know! It should be talked about and written about, so as to bring to light the interests and the profits that move the puppet-strings of war. “

The first Latin American pope recalled that the prophet Isaiah foretold the birth of the Prince of Peace, and looked forward to a day when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation,” a day when men “will not learn war any more,” but instead “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” He called on people everywhere to work for this day.

Turning to the Holy Land, Pope Francis denounced the Hamas attack on southern Israel that started this conflict, saying, “My heart grieves for the victims of the abominable attack of 7th October last.” He repeated his “urgent appeal for the liberation of those still being held hostage ” in Gaza.

He pleaded too “for an end to the [Israeli] military operations with their appalling harvest of innocent civilian victims,” in Gaza that in ten weeks has already caused the deaths of 20,424 Palestinians, including 8,663 children and 6,327 women, and the injuring of over 50,000 Palestinians according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza.

He called for “a solution to the desperate humanitarian situation by an opening to the provision of humanitarian aid” to the distraught 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza who lack clean water, food, shelter, and medical assistance, in what the United Nations agencies have called “a catastrophic situation.”

He prayed for “an end to the fueling of violence and hatred” that has spread not only in Gaza but throughout the Holy Land.

He called for a resolution to “the Palestinian question….through sincere and persevering dialogue between the parties, sustained by strong political will and the support of the international community.” Failure to resolve this has led to no less than five wars in the Holy Land over the past 75 years.

In his message, the Jesuit pope also drew attention to no less than ten other conflicts in the world. He called for peace for the people of war-torn Syria, and those of long-suffering Yemen. He prayed that political and social stability may soon become a reality in Lebanon.

Then as he has done every Sunday since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Francis prayed for peace in Ukraine, saying, “Let us renew our spiritual and human closeness to its embattled people, so that through the support of each of us, they may feel the concrete reality of God’s love.”

He prayed too that “the day of definitive peace” between Armenia and Azerbaijan “may draw near, and be advanced by the pursuit of humanitarian initiatives, by the return of refugees to their homes in legality and security, and by reciprocal respect for religious traditions and the places of worship of each community.”

Turning to the many conflicts in Africa, he prayed for peace in the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa and Sudan, as well as in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, the last two being countries that he visited in 2023.

Next, he turned his attention to Korea, which he visited in 2014, and prayed that fraternal bonds may soon “be consolidated on the Korean peninsula by undertaking processes of dialogue and reconciliation capable of creating the conditions for lasting peace.”

Then focusing on the continent of his birth, Pope Francis prayed that the infant Jesus whose birth we celebrate “may inspire political authorities and all persons of good will in the Americas to devise suitable ways to resolve social and political conflicts, to combat forms of poverty that offend the dignity of persons, to reduce inequality and to address the troubling phenomenon of migration movements.” He did not mention any specific country in Latin America.

Ever since he became pope, Francis has focused on the situation of poverty and hunger in the world, as well as human trafficking and the humanitarian crisis of migration. Today he said, “the Child Jesus asks us to be the voice of those who have no voice.” He mentioned in particular, “The voice of the innocent children who have died for lack of bread and water; the voice of those who cannot find work or who have lost their jobs; the voice of those forced to flee their lands in search of a better future, risking their lives in grueling journeys and prey to unscrupulous traffickers.”

He concluded by praying that the preparation for the Jubilee Year 2025, that starts before next Christmas, “may be an opportunity for the conversion of hearts, for the rejection of war and the embrace of peace.” He repeated twice, “Let us say no to war, and yes to peace!”

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