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Pope Francis holds Christmas Eve Mass

December 24, 2014

The pope has urged "courage" and "tenderness" during Christmas Eve Mass. Prior to his Vatican homily, the pontiff spoke to a Christian refugee camp in Iraq in support of followers persecuted for their faith worldwide.

Pope Francis speaking to followers
Image: REUTERS/Andreas Solaro/Pool

Pope Francis celebrated Christmas Eve with a late-night Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in the Italian capital, Rome, on Wednesday.

One of the grandest ceremonies on the Catholic calender, the service came days after Francis excoriated the Vatican bureaucracy for a range of sins including a lust for power and suffering from "spiritual Alzheimer's."

Thousands of people including high-ranking Vatican officials were scheduled to attend the service, featuring the Et Incarnatus Est from Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor, played by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, as well as more traditional Gregorian chants.

The pope blesses a Jesus statue
Pope Francis blesses the statue of the infant Jesus ahead of Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in RomeImage: REUTERS/Max Rossi

Before starting the Mass, Francis invited the congregration to join him in quiet reflection.

The pontiff also posted on the micro-blogging website Twitter to spread his Christmas message:

During his homily, Francis called for courage to help those in need.

"Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us? Or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today," he said, speaking to some 5,000 worshippers.

'I am close to you'

Ahead of the Mass, Francis made a telephone call to a Christian refugee camp in Iraq housing people who had fled the insurgency led by "Islamic State" (IS) militants.

The pope told residents at the site in Ankawa, near the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region, Erbil, that they were like Jesus, forced to flee because there was no shelter for them.

"You're like Jesus on this night, and I bless you and am close to you," the Pope said in the call broadcast live by Italian Catholic Media. "I embrace you all and wish for you a holy Christmas."

"Dear brothers, I am very, very close to you with all of my heart. May the lord caress you with his tenderness," Francis said.

In a letter published earlier this week, the pope urged Christians to remain in the Middle East 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.

At noon on Christmas Day, Francis is scheduled to deliver traditional blessings and the multilingual Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world) message, speaking from the central balcony of the Vatican basilica.

lw/jr (AP, Reuters)