Children gather near a figurine of the baby Jesus at the conclusion of Pope Francis' celebration of Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 24.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

Children gather near a figurine of the baby Jesus at the conclusion of Pope Francis' celebration of Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 24.

January 12, 2015
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Christmas, it is often said, is for children. So Pope Francis gave special attention to the gift of children during his talks in the Christmas season.

The pope extolled the miracle of children in one talk and, in another, called on "Baby Jesus" to save the millions of children who are abused and mistreated.

"A child is a miracle" that changes the lives of his or her parents, he said in an audience with an Italian association for large families on Dec. 28, the feast of the Holy Family.

"Each one of your children is a unique creature who will never be repeated in the history of humanity," he told the families.

Becoming a mother or father is a gift from God, but women and men have a duty to embrace that gift and be astonished by its beauty, Pope Francis said.

When people recognize that every child is unique and wanted by God, they will be "amazed by what a great miracle a child is," said Pope Francis.

"Dear parents, I am grateful for the example of your love of life that you safeguard from conception to its natural end, even with all of life's difficulties and burdens, which unfortunately the government doesn't always help you bear."

Holding the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph up as a model for all the world's families, the pope said, "maternity and paternity are a gift from God."

However, "welcoming that gift, being astonished by its beauty and making it shine in society, that is your task."

The pope, who is one of five children, said having lots of siblings "is good for you" and better equips new generations with what it takes to share and be united, which is especially needed "in a world often marked by selfishness."

While each family is "a cell" that together builds the body of society, large families are "a hope for society," he said. They are "richer, more alive," and governments should recognize the importance of "investing in" large families.

He asked that Italy, with its low birthrate, pay greater attention to creating and carrying out policies that offer real support for families.

Just a bit later in the day, the pope again highlighted the family, especially the role grandparents play, before praying the Angelus with visitors gathered in St. Peter's Square.

Pope Francis hands gifts to children during a meeting with an Italian association for large families to mark the feast of the Holy Family in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Dec. 28

CNS PHOTO | L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO VIA EPA

Pope Francis hands gifts to children during a meeting with an Italian association for large families to mark the feast of the Holy Family in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Dec. 28

Close loving relationships between the younger and older generations are "crucial" for both society and the Church, he said.

The Holy Family is a simple but powerful model as it radiates "a light of mercy and salvation for the whole world, the light of truth for every human being, for the human family and for individual families," he said.

That light "encourages us to offer human warmth" to those families that, for whatever reason, struggle with "a lack of peace, harmony and forgiveness."

On Christmas Day, Pope Francis struck a different tone, saying the crying of Baby Jesus is not the only cry people should hear on Christmas. Many children around the world are crying because of war, maltreatment and abuse.

"Baby Jesus," he said, pausing for effect. "My thoughts today go to all children who are abused and mistreated: those killed before they are born; those deprived of the generous love of their parents who are buried under the selfishness of a culture that does not love life; those children displaced by war and persecution, abused and exploited under our eyes and the silence that makes us accomplices."

Before giving his solemn Christmas blessing urbi et orbi (to the city and the world), Pope Francis addressed 80,000 people in St. Peter's Square.

With thousands of children looking at the Vatican's Nativity scene and receiving the pope's blessing with their parents Christmas morning, Pope Francis' strongest words were about less-fortunate children.

"May Jesus save the vast numbers of children who are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking or forced to become soldiers," he said.

The pope added special prayers for the families of the dozens of children killed Dec. 16 by a Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan.

"There are so many tears this Christmas, together with the tears of the infant Jesus," he said.

Children are dying "under bombardment, even where the Son of God was born. Today their silence cries out under the sword of so many Herods," those who kill children just as Herod did in Jesus' time.

The pope prayed that Christ's "divine power, by its meekness," would "take away the hardness of heart of so many men and women immersed in worldliness and indifference.

"May his redeeming strength transform arms into ploughshares, destruction into creativity, hatred into love and tenderness."

In St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve, 10 children led Pope Francis toward the altar. As the children from the Philippines, South Korea, Belgium, Italy, Lebanon and Syria looked on, Pope Francis removed the cloth that had been covering a statue of Baby Jesus. He bent over and kissed it gently.

HUMILITY OF GOD

In this homily, the pope said the birth of the Son of God in a lowly manger is the sign of "the humility of God taken to the extreme; it is the love with which, that night, he assumed our frailty, our suffering, our anxieties, our desires and our limitations."

Ever since sin entered the world, humanity was yearning for light and for peace, the pope said.

The birth of Jesus revealed that "the message that everyone was expecting, that everyone was searching for in the depths of their souls, was none other than the tenderness of God: God who looks upon us with eyes full of love, who accepts our poverty, God who is in love with our smallness."

At Christmas, he said, we are invited to reflect: "How do we welcome the tenderness of God? Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by him, or do I prevent him from drawing close?"

Put more simply, he said, the key question is: "Do I allow God to love me?"

GOD BECAME SMALL

In the face of difficulties and problems, the pope said, "the Christian response cannot be different from God's response to our smallness. Life must be met with goodness, with meekness."

God is in love with our smallness: "He made himself small in order to better encounter us," the pope said.

In that light, he continued, we should open our hearts to God and ask: "Lord, help me to be like you, give me the grace of tenderness in the most difficult circumstances of life, give me the grace of closeness in the face of every need, of meekness in every conflict."