Pope ushers in Christmas with message of 'unconditional love'

Pontiff leads Christmas celebrations with talk of hope as he rounds off difficult year for Catholic church.

    Pope Francis leads the Christmas Eve mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]
    Pope Francis leads the Christmas Eve mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

    Pope Francis ushered in Christmas on Wednesday for the world's 1.3 billion Catholics with a message of unconditional love, saying "God continues to love us all, even the worst of us."

    "You may have mistaken ideas, you may have made a complete mess of things, but the Lord continues to love you," the pontiff told crowds gathered at the Vatican for his Christmas Eve midnight mass.

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    The Argentinian, who has this year moved to combat silence surrounding paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church, also emphasised "unconditional" love.

    Thousands of reports of sexual abuse by priests around the world and accusations of cover-ups by senior clergy further damaged the church's reputation in 2019.

    Earlier this month, Pope Francis removed a Pontifical secrecy rule, which critics said prevented priests and victims from reporting abuse, and in May passed a landmark measure to oblige those who know about sex abuse to report it to their superiors.

    Francis will at noon on Wednesday give the traditional Christmas Day mass - his seventh - addressed to the world in front of St Peter's Square.

    Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians and foreigners converged in the biblical town of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, in the occupied West Bank.

    Hundreds of worshippers gathered in the church at the site of Jesus's birth for midnight mass, attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hundreds more gathered outside, watching on screens in the crisp air.

    Clergymen attend Christmas celebrations at Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank December 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    Christmas celebrations at Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

    'Celebrate the hope'

    As midnight bells rang throughout the town, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, led hymns and said prayers.

    "At Christmas, all the world looks to us, to Bethlehem," he said.

    Pizzaballa, who had to cross Israel's separation barrier to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, said after his arrival that it was a difficult time but there was reason for hope.

    "We see in this period the weakness of politics, enormous economic problems, unemployment, problems in families," he said in his homily.

    "On the other side, when I visit families, parishes, communities, I see a lot of commitment ... for the future. Christmas is for us to celebrate the hope."

    Meanwhile, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, the head of the Church of England, is expected to strike an unusually personal tone in this year's Christmas Day speech.

    The 93-year-old monarch will describe 2019 as "quite bumpy" at the end of a chaotic year which saw Britain feud over its split from the European Union and her scandal-plagued son Prince Andrew withdraw from public life.

    In the US, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump attended a music-filled Christmas Eve service at a Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated church before celebrating the holiday with dinner in the ballroom of his private club.

    Trump, less than a week after being impeached by the House, did not respond when asked by a reporter if he prayed for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at church, but he said, "We're going to have a great year."

    Elsewhere, for the first time in more than 200 years, worshippers in the French capital, Paris will not be able to attend Christmas mass at Notre Dame cathedral, still being restored after a devastating fire.

    SOURCE: News agencies