ROME — As nationalist forces rise globally and populist leaders emphasize the primacy of their own people, Pope Francis used his annual Christmas Day address on Tuesday to voice his conviction that all humans are part of an extended holy family that has lost its sense of fraternity.
“My wish for a happy Christmas is a wish for fraternity,” Francis, 82, said during his “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and to the World”) benediction from a balcony above St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
“Fraternity among individuals of every nation and culture. Fraternity among people with different ideas, yet capable of respecting and listening to one another. Fraternity among persons of different religions.”
He added, “Our differences, then, are not a detriment or a danger; they are a source of richness.”
The pope, who has been an ardent defender migrants in a period when speaking in their defense has largely fallen out of fashion, specifically addressed the scars of war in Africa, where “millions of persons are refugees or displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance and food security.”
He called for a spirit of fraternity to be rekindled in places where conflict has prevailed. Francis cited various conflicts, including between Israelis and Palestinians, in Yemen — where children are exhausted from “war and famine,” he said — on the Korean Peninsula, in Venezuela, Ukraine and in the “beleaguered country of Syria.”
Last week, President Trump called for the withdrawal of all 2,000 American troops in Syria, suddenly announcing the end of a military campaign that has mostly crushed the Islamic State.
His critics worry that in leaving, the United States is conceding Syria to the strategic interests of Russia and Iran, and endangering the country’s ethnic Kurds who have fought side by side with the Americans against the Islamic State militants.
“May the international community work decisively for a political solution that can put aside divisions and partisan interests, so that the Syrian people, especially all those who were forced to leave their own lands and seek refuge elsewhere, can return to live in peace in their own country,” Francis said on Tuesday.
The pope’s appeals for peace and fraternity — including toward those suffering the “ideological, cultural and economic forms of colonization” and from “hunger and the lack of educational and health care services” — were in keeping with his traditional Christmas prayers. He also voiced concern for persecuted Christian minorities in countries or regions where the faithful have been killed or had their religious freedom suppressed.
The pope’s Christmas address and earlier remarks delivered on Christmas Eve — in which he rejected consumerism, declaring that “the food of life is not material riches but love, not gluttony but charity” — followed the pattern of last year’s addresses.
In 2017, his Christmas Eve remarks focused on the “worldliness” that had taken Christmas hostage, while his Christmas Day speech made clear his concern that he was worried that serenity was sorely lacking as the “winds of war” were blowing.
But much has happened in the past year, threatening to erode the pope’s authority and the resonance of his calls for peace and justice.
The scourge of clerical sexual abuse scandals in the church hit with unprecedented force. Reports and criminal investigations have demonstrated just how widespread, damaging and concealed the crimes have been for decades, resulting in intense pain, anger and distrust toward the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Francis, who has long struggled to respond to the issue that threatens his papacy, has called a meeting in February with the presidents of bishop conferences around the world. The stakes are high for him to come up with concrete, actionable measures to protect children and vulnerable adults from predatory priests.
Many people close to victims of abuse have said that this could be the last chance for Francis, for whose papacy they had such high hopes when he was elected in 2013, to salvage his reputation on the issue. But they are concerned that instead of issuing orders from the Vatican, the pope’s emphasis on fraternity and collegiality among bishops will once again allow the hierarchy to police itself.
In the meantime, ideological enemies of the pope within the church declared open war on Francis in 2018 and weaponized the sexual abuse scandal to weaken a pontiff who they are convinced is leading the church astray by diluting doctrine.
And outside the church, populist leaders, even in the pope’s own Italian backyard, have increasingly risen to prominence using the very anti-migrant and nationalistic policies and language Francis warned against in his Christmas address. Often, such political leaders in Europe say they are acting in defense of the Continent’s Christian roots.
“Without the fraternity that Jesus Christ has bestowed on us,” the pope said on Tuesday, “our efforts for a more just world fall short, and even our best plans and projects risk being soulless and empty.”