Like Pope Benedict's "Urbi et Orbi" Christmas sermon last year, Pope Francis called for peace at St. Peter's Basilica this morning. The context, though, was very different.
Before a crowd of 70,000 worshippers, Pope Francis completed his first Christmas as the leader of the Roman Catholic church by asking for "social harmony in South Sudan" and praying for peace in Syria, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq. He also urged the Israelis and Palestinians to get their act together. The laundry list of global hot spots is something of a hallmark for big papal speeches.
But the pontiff deviated from his predecessor in a few telling ways. In a more direct manifestation of his social action advocacy, Pope Francis mentioned child soldiers and the plight of migrants, asking that others grant them "acceptance and assistance." He also spoke out against greed and human trafficking, calling the latter a "crime against humanity."
Perhaps most significantly, Pope Francis asked atheists and believers to unite. "I invite even non-believers to desire peace. (Join us) with your desire, a desire that widens the heart. Let us all unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace," he said.
Last Christmas, Pope Benedict, who resigned in February, warned listeners that God "cannot enter my heart unless I open the door to him." Closeness with God, he offered, would lead to “kindness, justice and peace”.
The rhetorical sea change accompanying the rise of Pope Francis is one of the most remarked-upon stories of the year. The pontiff's stances on poverty, social issues, economics, and the role of the clergy have delivered him a flock of admirers (as well as some critics). Pope Francis was also named 2013 Person of the Year by Time Magazine; the second time he received the honor if you actually count 2006.
The change has been especially noticeable this week. At Christmas Eve Mass last night, Pope Francis surprised some by electing to carry the statue of baby Jesus himself through the processional, rather than hand it off to an aide. On Saturday, during in his speech to the Roman Curia, Pope Francis chided his colleagues for (get this) gossiping too much. It was a quite a departure from Pope Benedict's speech to the Roman Curia last year, in which he railed against gay marriage and homosexuality, calling them destructive forces against "the essence of the human creature."