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Pope Francis: Don't forget the real meaning of Christmas

Vatican City, Dec 5, 2019 / 10:40 am (CNA).- Ahead of the Vatican Christmas tree lighting Dec. 5, Pope Francis expressed hope that the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square will serve as a reminder of what Christmas is truly about.

A nativity scene “is a genuine way of communicating the Gospel, in a world that sometimes seems to be afraid of remembering what Christmas really is, and blots out the Christian signs to only keep those of a banal, commercial imagination,” Pope Francis told an Italian delegation at the Vatican for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony Dec. 5.

This year’s Vatican Christmas tree comes from the northern Italian region of Vicenza, which was greatly damaged by storms in October 2018. The red spruce in St. Peter’s Square is a little over 85 feet tall.

The Christmas tree lighting ceremony also revealed a life-size nativity scene carved out of wood with tree trunks from Vicenza placed in the background in memory of the storm.

“The wooden trunks, coming from the areas hit by the storms, which form the backdrop to the landscape, underline the precariousness in which the Holy Family was found on that night in Bethlehem,” Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis met with delegations from the Italian diocese of Trento, Padua and Vittorio Venetoin at the Vatican’s apostolic palace Dec. 5 before the Christmas tree and nativity scene were presented.

“Today's meeting offers me the opportunity to renew my encouragement to your people, who last year suffered a devastating natural disaster, with the demolition of entire wooded areas,” Pope Francis told the delegation.

“I was pleased to learn that, replacing the plants removed, 40 fir trees will be replanted to replenish the woods severely damaged by the storm of 2018,” he said.

The Vatican Christmas tree is illuminated by energy-saving Christmas lights from the German multinational OSRAM, to reduce the environmental impact of the display.

Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello and Bishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga chaired the Vatican Christmas lighting ceremony. The nativity scene and Christmas tree will remain on display in St. Peter’s Square until January 12, 2020, the feast of Christ’s Baptism.

Pope Francis began Advent with a trip to the Italian town of Greccio, where St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in 1223. In Greccio, Pope Francis signed the apostolic letter, Admirabile signum, on the meaning and importance of nativity scenes.

“All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist,” Pope Francis wrote in the letter describing the St. Francis’ first nativity.

“As we contemplate the Christmas story, we are invited to set out on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman. We come to realize that so great is his love for us that he became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with him,” Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis: Don't forget the real meaning of Christmas

Vatican City, Dec 5, 2019 / 10:40 am (CNA).- Ahead of the Vatican Christmas tree lighting Dec. 5, Pope Francis expressed hope that the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square will serve as a reminder of what Christmas is truly about.

A nativity scene “is a genuine way of communicating the Gospel, in a world that sometimes seems to be afraid of remembering what Christmas really is, and blots out the Christian signs to only keep those of a banal, commercial imagination,” Pope Francis told an Italian delegation at the Vatican for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony Dec. 5.

This year’s Vatican Christmas tree comes from the northern Italian region of Vicenza, which was greatly damaged by storms in October 2018. The red spruce in St. Peter’s Square is a little over 85 feet tall.

The Christmas tree lighting ceremony also revealed a life-size nativity scene carved out of wood with tree trunks from Vicenza placed in the background in memory of the storm.

“The wooden trunks, coming from the areas hit by the storms, which form the backdrop to the landscape, underline the precariousness in which the Holy Family was found on that night in Bethlehem,” Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis met with delegations from the Italian diocese of Trento, Padua and Vittorio Venetoin at the Vatican’s apostolic palace Dec. 5 before the Christmas tree and nativity scene were presented.

“Today's meeting offers me the opportunity to renew my encouragement to your people, who last year suffered a devastating natural disaster, with the demolition of entire wooded areas,” Pope Francis told the delegation.

“I was pleased to learn that, replacing the plants removed, 40 fir trees will be replanted to replenish the woods severely damaged by the storm of 2018,” he said.

The Vatican Christmas tree is illuminated by energy-saving Christmas lights from the German multinational OSRAM, to reduce the environmental impact of the display.

Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello and Bishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga chaired the Vatican Christmas lighting ceremony. The nativity scene and Christmas tree will remain on display in St. Peter’s Square until January 12, 2020, the feast of Christ’s Baptism.

Pope Francis began Advent with a trip to the Italian town of Greccio, where St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in 1223. In Greccio, Pope Francis signed the apostolic letter, Admirabile signum, on the meaning and importance of nativity scenes.

“All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist,” Pope Francis wrote in the letter describing the St. Francis’ first nativity.

“As we contemplate the Christmas story, we are invited to set out on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman. We come to realize that so great is his love for us that he became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with him,” Pope Francis said.

Vatican committee asks UN for World Day of Human Fraternity

Vatican City, Dec 5, 2019 / 10:00 am (CNA).- Members of a Vatican special committee met with the Secretary General of the United Nations on December 4 to deliver a petition on human fraternity co-authored by Pope Francis and the Sunni Islamic Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb. 

The committee was formed in August, under the auspicies of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The message from the two religious leaders requested that Feb. 4 be declared the “World Day of Human Fraternity,” and asked the United Nations, along with the Holy See and the Al-Azhar Mosque, to create a “World Summit On Human Fraternity.” The Al-Azhar Mosque is located in Cairo, Egypt, and the Grand Imam of that mosque is considered to be one of the highest positions in Sunni Islam. 

According to a statement released by the Pontifical Council on Dec. 5, Dr. Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, “expressed his appreciation and availability for the initiative,” and said that he believed it was important to work “at the service of all humanity.”

Guterres appointed Dr. Adama Dieng, who is presently the United Nations Secretary General’s  Special Adviser for Hate Speech and the Prevention of Genoicde, to work along with a Vatican special committee on the proposed summit and World Day of Human Fraternity. 

The Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue formed the committee in late August to work towards the goals for advancing world peace and coexistence laid out in the Document on Human Fraternity. That document was released on Feb. 4, when Pope Francis made an apostolic journey to the United Arab Emirates. 

The committee, which is led by Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, contains members belonging to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths. Ayuso Guixot also heads the Pontifical Council. 

Ayuso Giuxot, in an interview with Vatican News Aug. 26, called the creation of the committee a “significant act” with a “noble” objective, and stated that he believes “fear is the number one enemy of interreligious dialogue.”

“The Catholic Church recalls the value of its own identity, of the courage of otherness and the sincerity of intentions,” he said. “It is not a matter of making a ‘melting pot’ in which all religions are considered equal, but that all believers, those who seek God and all people of good will without a religious affiliation, have equal dignity.”

“I think the Abu Dhabi declaration is a global appeal to the ‘civilization of love’ which contrasts with those who want a clash of civilizations!” the archbishop said.

About three weeks after the superior committee was formed, the Catholic and Muslim members met in the Holy See on Sept. 11 to pray for the victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, as well as for the victims of every act of terrorism. 

According to the Holy See Press Office, the committee chose to meet Sept. 11 as “a sign of the will to build life and fraternity where others sowed death and destruction.”

Vatican committee asks UN for World Day of Human Fraternity

Vatican City, Dec 5, 2019 / 10:00 am (CNA).- Members of a Vatican special committee met with the Secretary General of the United Nations on December 4 to deliver a petition on human fraternity co-authored by Pope Francis and the Sunni Islamic Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb. 

The committee was formed in August, under the auspicies of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The message from the two religious leaders requested that Feb. 4 be declared the “World Day of Human Fraternity,” and asked the United Nations, along with the Holy See and the Al-Azhar Mosque, to create a “World Summit On Human Fraternity.” The Al-Azhar Mosque is located in Cairo, Egypt, and the Grand Imam of that mosque is considered to be one of the highest positions in Sunni Islam. 

According to a statement released by the Pontifical Council on Dec. 5, Dr. Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, “expressed his appreciation and availability for the initiative,” and said that he believed it was important to work “at the service of all humanity.”

Guterres appointed Dr. Adama Dieng, who is presently the United Nations Secretary General’s  Special Adviser for Hate Speech and the Prevention of Genoicde, to work along with a Vatican special committee on the proposed summit and World Day of Human Fraternity. 

The Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue formed the committee in late August to work towards the goals for advancing world peace and coexistence laid out in the Document on Human Fraternity. That document was released on Feb. 4, when Pope Francis made an apostolic journey to the United Arab Emirates. 

The committee, which is led by Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, contains members belonging to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths. Ayuso Guixot also heads the Pontifical Council. 

Ayuso Giuxot, in an interview with Vatican News Aug. 26, called the creation of the committee a “significant act” with a “noble” objective, and stated that he believes “fear is the number one enemy of interreligious dialogue.”

“The Catholic Church recalls the value of its own identity, of the courage of otherness and the sincerity of intentions,” he said. “It is not a matter of making a ‘melting pot’ in which all religions are considered equal, but that all believers, those who seek God and all people of good will without a religious affiliation, have equal dignity.”

“I think the Abu Dhabi declaration is a global appeal to the ‘civilization of love’ which contrasts with those who want a clash of civilizations!” the archbishop said.

About three weeks after the superior committee was formed, the Catholic and Muslim members met in the Holy See on Sept. 11 to pray for the victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, as well as for the victims of every act of terrorism. 

According to the Holy See Press Office, the committee chose to meet Sept. 11 as “a sign of the will to build life and fraternity where others sowed death and destruction.”

'The key is not to fight, but just to bear witness': How to preach Advent

Washington D.C., Dec 5, 2019 / 08:35 am (CNA).- The season of Advent, and the entire cycle of the liturgical year, is vital to remaining rooted in the true mission of the Church, Archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia, O.P., adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told CNA. 

Di Noia spoke to CNA Dec. 4 about his newly-released book, “Grace in Season: The Riches of the Gospel in Seventy Sermons” which was published Nov. 15 by Cluny Media. 

"The theme of the book is that the preacher should realize that the liturgical year is a unit that is repeated every single year, and it starts with Advent and finishes with Pentecost,” said Di Noia. The book, a collection of Di Noia's own sermons, is organized by the liturgical seasons. 

The combined readings--the prayers, the preface, and everything said at Mass-- form “a story that you fit into. The liturgy is the key, the entree to it,” he said. By repeating this liturgy in the liturgical year, “we become like Him,” said Di Noia. “That’s the unspoken premise of the book.” 

The liturgical year, he said, is support for the faith similar to a sacramental, and is the “fundamental pattern of Christian spirituality” that is configured to Christ. Preachers, he said, should look to the lectionary and the Sunday readings first and foremost when deciding what they will preach to their homilies. 

“And each season,” he said, “has a particular grace. So Advent is the grace to realize the complete gratuity of grace.”

In the middle of a secularized holiday season, the archbishop said it was important to remain rooted in the true meaning of the time. In the present culture, where the true meaning of Advent as a season of somber preparation is largely discarded, Di Noia said that the best approach to respecting the liturgical season is by hunkering down and living a Christian life in spite of everything. 

“We can’t change the culture,” said Di Noia. “You just have to maintain [a devotion to Advent]. It’s an effort and it requires a certain amount of discipline to concentrate on Advent.” 

"People say, 'Let's put Christ back into Christmas.' I say 'who took him out?' Who could take him out?"

Reflecting on the Advent practice of looking towards the second coming of Christ, Di Noia said that it is key to remember why exactly it was that Christ came to earth. 

"Christ did not come for the resolution to [societal] problems,” said Di Noia. “He came to confront the sin in the human heart, directly. He didn't try to do something superficially.”

Had Christ been born as the son of someone prominent, such as an emperor, that would have undermined his purpose and  “would have confirmed us in our belief that we can deal with sin [...] and that there are human ways we can dissolve it.” 

“In the end, without the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, sin is intractable. It cannot be cured," he said. 

In his current role at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department charged with guarding Church discipline in faith and morals, Di Noia is not ordinarily permitted to speak publicly on the nature of his work. But, he told CNA, his day job has not stopped him living out the Dominican charism of teaching and preaching.

The collection of sermons, said Di Noia, “is a way of evangelizing” which was suggested to him by a fellow Dominican friar in Rome.  

The majority of the 70 homilies picked for the book date from after his consecration as a bishop in 2009. Prior to this time, he said he did not typically write down sermons, and instead preferred to form a general idea and preach spontaneously from there. Once he began writing down sermons, he realized he could better craft his preaching and include quotes from the Church Fathers. 

“I’m preaching all the time,” he said, noting that he frequently lectures as well. His work in the CDF he categorized as “pastoral,” while noting the tragic reality that the CDF is now mostly known for dealing with cases of sexual abuse by clerics.

Di Noia is acutely aware of how the abuse crisis has shaken the Church and the faithful, and in particular how it has changed the wider perception of the Church and of Catholics in society. For struggling Catholics, Di Noia offered a reflection on how Christ himself was treated leading up to his crucifixion.

“The profound significance of what the Church experiences in the world is that the suffering is the power of Christ,” he said. Di Noia pointed to a passage from the Gospel of John, where it states “He came to his own and his own received him not.” 

"So that, in other words, the expectation that the message is not going to be palatable is the default position," he said with a laugh. 

“The key is not to fight, but just to bear witness. It’s very difficult,” he said. 

'The key is not to fight, but just to bear witness': How to preach Advent

Washington D.C., Dec 5, 2019 / 08:35 am (CNA).- The season of Advent, and the entire cycle of the liturgical year, is vital to remaining rooted in the true mission of the Church, Archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia, O.P., adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told CNA. 

Di Noia spoke to CNA Dec. 4 about his newly-released book, “Grace in Season: The Riches of the Gospel in Seventy Sermons” which was published Nov. 15 by Cluny Media. 

"The theme of the book is that the preacher should realize that the liturgical year is a unit that is repeated every single year, and it starts with Advent and finishes with Pentecost,” said Di Noia. The book, a collection of Di Noia's own sermons, is organized by the liturgical seasons. 

The combined readings--the prayers, the preface, and everything said at Mass-- form “a story that you fit into. The liturgy is the key, the entree to it,” he said. By repeating this liturgy in the liturgical year, “we become like Him,” said Di Noia. “That’s the unspoken premise of the book.” 

The liturgical year, he said, is support for the faith similar to a sacramental, and is the “fundamental pattern of Christian spirituality” that is configured to Christ. Preachers, he said, should look to the lectionary and the Sunday readings first and foremost when deciding what they will preach to their homilies. 

“And each season,” he said, “has a particular grace. So Advent is the grace to realize the complete gratuity of grace.”

In the middle of a secularized holiday season, the archbishop said it was important to remain rooted in the true meaning of the time. In the present culture, where the true meaning of Advent as a season of somber preparation is largely discarded, Di Noia said that the best approach to respecting the liturgical season is by hunkering down and living a Christian life in spite of everything. 

“We can’t change the culture,” said Di Noia. “You just have to maintain [a devotion to Advent]. It’s an effort and it requires a certain amount of discipline to concentrate on Advent.” 

"People say, 'Let's put Christ back into Christmas.' I say 'who took him out?' Who could take him out?"

Reflecting on the Advent practice of looking towards the second coming of Christ, Di Noia said that it is key to remember why exactly it was that Christ came to earth. 

"Christ did not come for the resolution to [societal] problems,” said Di Noia. “He came to confront the sin in the human heart, directly. He didn't try to do something superficially.”

Had Christ been born as the son of someone prominent, such as an emperor, that would have undermined his purpose and  “would have confirmed us in our belief that we can deal with sin [...] and that there are human ways we can dissolve it.” 

“In the end, without the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, sin is intractable. It cannot be cured," he said. 

In his current role at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department charged with guarding Church discipline in faith and morals, Di Noia is not ordinarily permitted to speak publicly on the nature of his work. But, he told CNA, his day job has not stopped him living out the Dominican charism of teaching and preaching.

The collection of sermons, said Di Noia, “is a way of evangelizing” which was suggested to him by a fellow Dominican friar in Rome.  

The majority of the 70 homilies picked for the book date from after his consecration as a bishop in 2009. Prior to this time, he said he did not typically write down sermons, and instead preferred to form a general idea and preach spontaneously from there. Once he began writing down sermons, he realized he could better craft his preaching and include quotes from the Church Fathers. 

“I’m preaching all the time,” he said, noting that he frequently lectures as well. His work in the CDF he categorized as “pastoral,” while noting the tragic reality that the CDF is now mostly known for dealing with cases of sexual abuse by clerics.

Di Noia is acutely aware of how the abuse crisis has shaken the Church and the faithful, and in particular how it has changed the wider perception of the Church and of Catholics in society. For struggling Catholics, Di Noia offered a reflection on how Christ himself was treated leading up to his crucifixion.

“The profound significance of what the Church experiences in the world is that the suffering is the power of Christ,” he said. Di Noia pointed to a passage from the Gospel of John, where it states “He came to his own and his own received him not.” 

"So that, in other words, the expectation that the message is not going to be palatable is the default position," he said with a laugh. 

“The key is not to fight, but just to bear witness. It’s very difficult,” he said. 

Pope Francis tells Jesuits he is shocked by anti-immigration narratives in Europe

Vatican City, Dec 5, 2019 / 05:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis decried the mistreatment of migrants and said that he is shocked by anti-immigration narratives within Europe during a conversation with Jesuits in Thailand published Thursday.

“I must admit that I am shocked by some of the narratives I hear in Europe about borders. Populism is gaining strength,” Pope Francis said in Thailand according to the Jesuit-run journal La Civilita Cattolica transcript published online Dec. 5.

“The Mediterranean has been turned into a cemetery. The notorious cruelty of some detention centers in Libya touches my heart … In other parts there are walls that even separate children from parents,” the pope is reported to have said in a meeting on Nov. 22.

The pope said that migration issues are compounded by a “defensive mindset” that creates a state of fear and makes people believe that “you can only defend yourself by strengthening borders.”

As a result, refugees are treated as “waste material” rather than human beings, he said.

“The phenomenon of refugees has always existed, but today it is better known because of social differences, hunger, political tensions and especially war. For these reasons, migratory movements are intensifying. What is the answer the world gives? The policy of waste. Refugees are waste material,” Pope Francis said.

Francis said that “Herod comes to mind” when he thinks of immigrant children separated from their parents. “Yet for drugs, there’s no wall to keep them out,” he added.

“The Christian tradition has a rich evangelical experience in dealing with the problem of refugees. We also remember the importance of welcoming the foreigner as the Old Testament teaches us,” Pope Francis said.

The pope commended the efforts of religious sisters who work to help victims of human trafficking and prostitution.

Pope Francis met with 48 Jesuits from Southeast Asia in Bangkok’s Shrine of Blessed Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung during his apostolic trip to Thailand and Japan Nov. 19-26.

During papal trips Pope Francis often stops to meet with Jesuits in the region. In the 30-minute meeting in Thailand, the Jesuit priests and seminarians asked the pope about refugees, the environment, prudence, and divorced and remarried Catholics.

The pope encouraged the Jesuits to follow a "little path" of prayer, contemplation of reality, discernment, and action with commitment and courage.

Pope Francis recalled in the meeting a recent encounter with a French missionary who has served in Thailand for 40 years:

“He came to me with about 20 of his parishioners whom he himself had baptized. He also baptized the children of those he had previously baptized: people get married young there, and he was the first evangelizer in that area."

“I dream of a young Church, very close to the people, fresh," Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis tells Jesuits he is shocked by anti-immigration narratives in Europe

Vatican City, Dec 5, 2019 / 05:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis decried the mistreatment of migrants and said that he is shocked by anti-immigration narratives within Europe during a conversation with Jesuits in Thailand published Thursday.

“I must admit that I am shocked by some of the narratives I hear in Europe about borders. Populism is gaining strength,” Pope Francis said in Thailand according to the Jesuit-run journal La Civilita Cattolica transcript published online Dec. 5.

“The Mediterranean has been turned into a cemetery. The notorious cruelty of some detention centers in Libya touches my heart … In other parts there are walls that even separate children from parents,” the pope is reported to have said in a meeting on Nov. 22.

The pope said that migration issues are compounded by a “defensive mindset” that creates a state of fear and makes people believe that “you can only defend yourself by strengthening borders.”

As a result, refugees are treated as “waste material” rather than human beings, he said.

“The phenomenon of refugees has always existed, but today it is better known because of social differences, hunger, political tensions and especially war. For these reasons, migratory movements are intensifying. What is the answer the world gives? The policy of waste. Refugees are waste material,” Pope Francis said.

Francis said that “Herod comes to mind” when he thinks of immigrant children separated from their parents. “Yet for drugs, there’s no wall to keep them out,” he added.

“The Christian tradition has a rich evangelical experience in dealing with the problem of refugees. We also remember the importance of welcoming the foreigner as the Old Testament teaches us,” Pope Francis said.

The pope commended the efforts of religious sisters who work to help victims of human trafficking and prostitution.

Pope Francis met with 48 Jesuits from Southeast Asia in Bangkok’s Shrine of Blessed Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung during his apostolic trip to Thailand and Japan Nov. 19-26.

During papal trips Pope Francis often stops to meet with Jesuits in the region. In the 30-minute meeting in Thailand, the Jesuit priests and seminarians asked the pope about refugees, the environment, prudence, and divorced and remarried Catholics.

The pope encouraged the Jesuits to follow a "little path" of prayer, contemplation of reality, discernment, and action with commitment and courage.

Pope Francis recalled in the meeting a recent encounter with a French missionary who has served in Thailand for 40 years:

“He came to me with about 20 of his parishioners whom he himself had baptized. He also baptized the children of those he had previously baptized: people get married young there, and he was the first evangelizer in that area."

“I dream of a young Church, very close to the people, fresh," Pope Francis said.

Massive strikes interrupt France's daily life

Massive strikes over proposed pension reforms bring France to a stand-still, gripping transport systems, closing schools, and leaving garbage piled high. The hardest hit is the French capital Paris where many residents and tourists struggle to cope with the most significant public sector actions in decades.

Burkina Faso bishop: ‘the West is ignoring the plight of Christians in West Africa’

The Catholic Bishops of Burkina Faso send their condolences to the Federation of Evangelical Church Mission in the country following an attack on the weekend that killed over a dozen people in a Protestant church.