Pope marks joyful Christmas Eve after less-than-joyful year

Pope Francis assured the faithful on Christmas Eve that God loves everyone — “even the worst of us” — as he celebrated the joyous birth of Christ after a less-than-joyful year of scandals and opposition.

 With a choir singing the classic Christmas hymn “The First Noel,” Francis processed down the center aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica late Tuesday and unveiled a statue of the newborn Jesus lying in a nativity scene at the foot of the altar.

Francis said the birth of Jesus, which Christians commemorate on Christmas Day, was a reminder of God’s unconditional love for everyone, “even the worst of us.”

“God does not love you because you think and act the right way,” he said. “You may have mistaken ideas, you may have made a complete mess of things, but the Lord continues to love you.”

At the same time though, he called for the faithful to allow themselves to be transformed by Jesus’ “crazy love” and to stop trying to change others.

 Pope marks joyful Christmas Eve after lessthanjoyful year

“May we not wait for our neighbors to be good before we do good to them, for the church to be perfect before we love her, for others to respect us before we serve them. Let us begin with ourselves,” he said.

Francis has frequently emphasized his call for “personal conversion” in his reform-minded papacy, believing that true reform cannot be imposed from on high, but discerned from within. He has similarly denounced the “holier-than-thou” attitude of doctrinal and legal purists, who have chafed at his progressive openings to gays, divorcees and people on the margins.

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Those critics have seized on the sexual abuse and financial scandals that have buffeted the papacy of the 83-year-old Jesuit pope.

The scandals are likely to follow Francis into 2020, with developments in a corruption investigation involving hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to the Holy See and the release of a report on what the Vatican knew about ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked for sexually abusing adults and minors,

Francis’ late-night Mass kicks off a busy few days for the pope, including a Christmas Day speech, noontime prayers, a New Year’s Eve vigil and a Jan. 1 Mass.

Pope Francis warned Saturday that “rigidity” in living out the Christian faith is creating a “minefield” of hatred and misunderstanding in a world where Christianity is increasingly irrelevant.

Francis called for Vatican bureaucrats to instead embrace change during his annual Christmas greetings to the cardinals, bishops and priests who work in the Holy See.

Francis’ message appeared aimed at conservative and traditionalist Catholics, including within the Vatican Curia, who have voiced increasing opposition to his progressive-minded papacy. Their criticisms have accelerated over the past year, amid Vatican financial and sex abuse scandals that may have predated Francis’ papacy but are nevertheless coming to light now.

Francis issued a stark reality check to the men in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, acknowledging that Christianity no longer holds the commanding presence and influence in society that it once did.

He cited the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a leader of the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, who in his final interview before dying in 2012 lamented that the church found itself “200 years behind” because of its inbred fear of change.

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“Today we are no longer the only ones that produce culture, no longer the first nor the most listened to,” Francis told the prelates. “The faith in Europe and in much of the West is no longer an obvious presumption but is often denied, derided, marginalized and ridiculed.”

As a result, he urged the Catholic hierarchy to embrace the necessary pastoral reforms and outlook that will make the church attractive so that it can fulfill its mission to spread the faith.

“Here we have to beware of the temptation of assuming a rigid outlook,” Francis said. “Rigidity that is born from fear of change and ends up disseminating stakes and obstacles in the ground of the common good, turning it into a minefield of misunderstanding and hatred.”

He recalled, as he has in the past, that people who take rigid positions are usually using them to mask their own problems, scandals or “imbalances.”

“Rigidity and imbalance fuel one another in a vicious circle,” he said. “And these days, the temptation to rigidity has become so apparent.”

Traditionalist Catholics have denounced Francis’ emphasis on mercy and openness to doctrinal wiggle room on issues such as sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. They also sharply criticized his recent synod on the Amazon, which called for the ordination of married men as priests, and what they considered pagan worship of an Amazonian statue of a pregnant woman that was featured during the meeting.