Pope compares today’s migrants to Mary’s journey to Bethlehem
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis in Christmas Eve remarks likened the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to the migrations of millions of people today who are forced to leave homelands for a better life, and he expressed hope that no one will feel ‘‘there is no room for them on this Earth.’’
Francis celebrated late evening Christmas vigil Mass in the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica, telling the faithful that the ‘‘simple story’’ of Jesus’s birth in a manger changed ‘‘our history forever. Everything that night became a source of hope.’’
In Bethlehem on Sunday, Christmas Eve events were subdued, with spirits dampened by cold, rainy weather and recent violence sparked by President Trump’s recognition of nearby Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Crowds were thinner than previous years in Bethlehem as visitors, particularly Arab Christians living in Israel and the West Bank, appeared to be deterred by clashes that have broken out in recent weeks between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces.
Although there was no violence Sunday, Palestinian officials scaled back the celebrations.
Noting that Mary and Joseph arrived in a land ‘‘where there was no place for them,’’ Francis drew parallels to contemporary times.
‘‘So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary,’’ he said in his homily. ‘‘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 has made concern for economic migrants, war refugees, and others on society’s margins a central plank of his papacy. He said God is present in ‘‘the unwelcomed visitor, often unrecognizable, who walks through our cities and our neighborhoods, who travels on our buses and knocks on our door.’’
That perception of God should develop into ‘‘new forms of relationship, in which none have to feel that there is no room for them,’’ he said.
‘‘Christmas is a time for turning the power of fear into the power of charity,’’ Francis said.
At midday Monday, Francis will deliver the Christmas Day message ‘‘urbi et orbi’’ — Latin for ‘‘to the city and to the world’’ — from the central loggia of the basilica overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem triggered weeks of unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including near-daily clashes in Bethlehem, which lies just south of Jerusalem.
By midafternoon Sunday, hundreds of people had gathered in Manger Square for Christmas celebrations, greeted by bagpipe-playing young Palestinian marching bands and Scout troops. Accompanying the decorations was a large banner protesting Trump’s decision.
But after nightfall, the crowds had thinned as rain fell and temperatures dipped to about 50 degrees. Just a few dozen people milled about Manger Square, while others took shelter in the church and other nearby buildings.
Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, said celebrations were toned down because of anger over Trump’s decision. ‘‘We decided to limit the Christmas celebrations to the religious rituals,’’ he said.
Monsignor Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of Jerusalem, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, crossed through an Israeli military checkpoint to enter Bethlehem from Jerusalem. His limousine was escorted by a group of men on motorcycles, some of them wearing red Santa hats.
Pizzaballa, who last week spoke out against the US decision, tried to steer clear of politics Sunday. He waved to the crowd, shook hands, and hugged well-wishers as he walked to the Church of the Nativity to celebrate Midnight Mass.