Pope Francis stood up for immigrants at his Christmas Eve Mass on Sunday, likening them to Mary and Joseph finding no place to spend the night in Bethlehem and saying faith demands that foreigners be treated with good will.
Francis, celebrating his fifth Christmas as head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, led a solemn Mass for approximately 10,000 people in St. Peter’s Basilica while thousands of others followed the service from the square outside.
Security was increased, with participants checked as they got near St. Peter’s Square even before going through metal detectors to enter the basilica. The square had been cleared out hours before so security procedures could be implemented.
The Gospel reading at the Mass in Christendom’s largest church told the Biblical story of how Mary and Joseph had to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered for the census ordered by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus.
“So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary. We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day. We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away, but driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones,” Francis lamented.
Even the shepherds who the Bible teaches were the first to see the child Jesus were “forced to live on the edges of society” and considered dirty, stinky foreigners, he said. “Everything about them generated mistrust. They were men and women to be kept at a distance, to be feared.”
Wearing white vestments in the flower-filled church, Francis called for a “new social imagination … in which none have to feel that there is no room for them on this earth.”
The 81-year-old pope, who was born from Italian immigrant stock in Argentina, has made defense of migrants a major foundation of his papacy, often putting him in conflict with less-empathetic politicians.
In his homily, Francis said, “Our document of citizenship” comes directly from God, making respect for all migrants an integral part of Christianity.
“This is the joy that we tonight are called to share, to celebrate and to proclaim. The joy with which God, in his infinite mercy, has embraced us pagans, sinners and foreigners, and demands that we do the same,” Francis said.
Francis also sharply condemned human traffickers who make money off unfortunate migrants as the “Herods of today” with blood on their hands, which is a reference to the Biblical story of the king who commanded that all newborn male children near Bethlehem be killed because he feared Jesus would one day displace him.
More than 14,000 people have perished trying to make the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean to Europe in the last four years.