NEW: The pope urges the international community to help the hungry in Africa
Benedict calls for an end to the violence in Syria after more than 5,000 are killed
The faithful pack St. Peter's Square on a glorious sunny day
A Nativity scene is unveiled in St. Peter's Square
Pope Benedict XVI prayed for peace in Syria, reconciliation in Myanmar, and comfort in flood-stricken Thailand and the Philippines in his annual Christmas message “To the City and the World” on Sunday.
Addressing a packed St. Peter’s Square on a glorious sunny day, the pope pleaded with God to “bring an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed.”
More than 5,000 people have died in Syria since President Bashar al-Assad began a brutal crackdown in mid-March on anti-government protesters calling for his ouster, the United Nations said earlier this month.
In his Christmas morning speech, Benedict also urged the international community to help those suffering hunger and insecurity in the Horn of Africa, a reference to famine and violence in Somalia and Kenya.
The pope’s reference to the Philippines came as the death toll from flooding there last week topped 1,000, with more than 1,000 more missing.
He also prayed for peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, and in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan, and wished “renewed vigor” to those striving for the common good across the Arab world after this year’s revolutions.
The speech, called “Urbi et Orbi” in Latin, came a day after the pope delivered a homily that focused on the “essence” of the holiday rather than the “commercial celebration” it has become.
“Today Christmas has become a commercial celebration, whose bright lights hide the mystery of God’s humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity,” the pope said during Mass on Christmas Eve. “Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light.”
The 84-year-old pope, presiding over his seventh Mass as pontiff, also conjured up an image of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, explaining that visitors must bend down to enter its low opening, drawing a tie to what followers of Christ must do to find their faith.
“If we want to find the God who appeared as a child, then we must dismount from the high horse of our ‘enlightened’ reason,” he said. “… In this spirit let us celebrate the liturgy of the holy night, let us strip away our fixation on what is material, on what can be measured and grasped.”
The pope started off Saturday’s celebrations by lighting a peace candle in the window of his study during the unveiling of a larger-than-life Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. The scene, at 23 feet high and 82 feet wide, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, according to the Vatican’s news agency.
Thousands poured into the square and St. Peter’s Basilica ahead of the midnight Mass, which was actually held at 10 p.m. this year. Before his homily, the aging pontiff rode down St. Peter’s long aisle on a wheeled platform, waving to worshippers.