ROME – Pope Francis used the first Christmas address of his papacy Wednesday to make a broad call for global peace and an end to violence in Syria and parts of Africa, urging atheists and followers of other religions to join together in this common cause.
On a windy Christmas Day, Francis spoke from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as a throng estimated at 70,000 people listened below. The traditional address, known as “Urbi et Orbi,” Latin for “to the city and the world,” offered the pope an opportunity to give Christmas greetings to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and draw attention to issues that concern him – in this case, the universal desire for peace.
“True peace is not a balance of opposing forces,” Francis said. “It is not a lovely facade which conceals conflicts and divisions. Peace calls for daily commitment.”
In the nine months since he became pope, Francis has generated global excitement among Catholics, and others, with his humble demeanor and his shift in tone from the more strident papacy of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, whose resignation in February stunned the Catholic world.
Francis has regularly attracted huge crowds in Vatican City, and almost overnight he has emerged as a major figure on the global stage, surprising many Catholics with his nonjudgmental tone on issues like homosexuality and divorce, and his focus on the plight of the world’s poor.
He has also been unpredictable, telephoning ordinary people who have written him letters, embracing a badly disfigured man at St. Peter’s and making unannounced visits in Rome.
He proved unpredictable again Wednesday, when he went off script to include atheists in his call for peace, rare for a Catholic leader.
“I invite even nonbelievers to desire peace,” he said. “Let us all unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace.”
Earlier this week, Francis visited Benedict, who lives in an apartment inside the Vatican, and offered a private Christmas greeting.
Last Christmas, it was Benedict who appeared on the central balcony, offering an address that had some overlapping themes with Francis’ message. Benedict, too, had called for an end to violence in Syria, while also speaking out for religious freedom in China.
Francis broadened his peace message to call for an end to violence in Syria, as well as in the Central African Republic, where Christians and Muslims have clashed in a country that he described as “often forgotten and overlooked.”
He cited the rising tensions and violence in South Sudan, calling for “social harmony,” and he asked for a “favorable outcome” to peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
He also renewed his focus on the plight of migrants, some the victims of human trafficking, others fleeing war and poverty to try to reach Europe.
Francis called attention to victims of natural disasters, especially Philippine typhoon victims, while renewing his call to protect the environment, which he said was “frequently exploited by human greed and rapacity.”