Pope at Christmas: Transform swords to plowshares

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis used his annual Christmas message Thursday to call for an end to conflicts throughout the world, mentioning particularly Christians in the Middle East suffering a "brutal persecution" and many children in the region who he said have been "massacred under bombing." 

Ending the message, known as the "Urbi et Orbi" blessing and given each Christmas on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, the pope called for the power of Christ "to be felt in so many hearts afflicted by war, persecution and slavery."

"May this divine power, by its meekness, take away the hardness of heart of so many men and women immersed in worldliness and indifference," asked Francis. "May his redeeming strength transform arms into plowshares, destruction into creativity, hatred into love and tenderness."

Continuing, the pope said: "Then we will be able to cry out with joy: 'Our eyes have seen your salvation.'"

Taking a particularly somber note to the message, given by the pontiff each year before granting of an apostolic blessing, Francis made reference to many global conflicts: from those suffering horrific violence from the so-called Islamic State, to the continuing crisis in Ukraine, to many different clashes on the African continent.

But Francis seemed to take his most personal tone when mentioning the many child victims of violence around the world, adding a section to his prepared text to address the issue.

Speaking directing to the child Jesus whose birth Christians celebrate on Christmas, Francis said his thoughts on the holy day "go to all children today killed and mistreated."

His thoughts, the pontiff said, go to children "deprived of the generous love of their parents and buried in the selfishness of a culture that doesn't love life" and to "those children displaced because of wars and persecution, abused and exploited under our eyes and our silent complicity."

Francis said his thoughts also go to "children massacred in the bombing, even there where the Son of God was born."

"Even today, they cry helplessly silent under the sword of many Herods," said Francis. "Truly, many tears there are this Christmas together with the tears of Baby Jesus!"

The Christmas papal message is one of two occasions each year where the pope gives a  blessing from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, the other being at Easter.

Francis' mention Thursday to turning swords into plowshares is a reference to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who wrote of a time when the world's nations will dismantle their weapons and turn them into tools of peace.

The passage is used frequently by Christian peace activists, who invoke the image particularly in calling for the dismantling of the world's nuclear arsenals.

In his message to some tens of thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square Thursday, Francis spoke particularly of "our brothers and sisters" in Iraq and Syria, who he said "for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution."

"May Christmas bring them hope, as indeed also to the many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, children, adults and elderly, from this region and from the whole world," said the pontiff.

"May indifference be changed into closeness and rejection into hospitality, so that all who now are suffering may receive the necessary humanitarian help to overcome the rigors of winter, return to their countries and live with dignity," he continued.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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