At first Christmas as pope, Francis urges openness to God

Pope Francis leads a Christmas Eve mass at St Peter's Basilica to mark the nativity of Jesus Christ, on Dec 24, 2013 at the Vatican. Pope Francis, celebrating his first Christmas as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, on Tuesday u
Pope Francis leads a Christmas Eve mass at St Peter's Basilica to mark the nativity of Jesus Christ, on Dec 24, 2013 at the Vatican. Pope Francis, celebrating his first Christmas as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, on Tuesday urged people to shun pride and selfishness and open up their hearts to God and their fellow man. -- PHOTO: AFP

VATICAN CITY (REUTERS) - Pope Francis, celebrating his first Christmas as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, on Tuesday urged people to shun pride and selfishness and open up their hearts to God and their fellow man.

Pope Francis, who last March became the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, celebrated a solemn Christmas Eve Mass for some 10,000 people in a packed St. Peter's Basilica as hundreds of others watched on mega-screens in the square outside.

The great bells of the basilica, the same that rang to announce his election on March 13, sounded when the Sistine Chapel Choir intoned the Gloria, a prayer which starts with the words the Bible says angels sang on the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Pope Francis delivered a short homily that was as simple as his white vestments: Man can choose between darkness and light.

"...On the part of the people there are times of both light and darkness, fidelity and infidelity, obedience, and rebellion; times of being a pilgrim people and times of being a people adrift," he said, speaking in Italian.

"In our personal history too, there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows. If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us," he said.

Pope Francis, who concelebrated the Mass with more than 300 cardinals, bishops and priests, urged people not to be afraid to reach out to God.

"Do not be afraid! Our Father is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness. He is our peace," he said.

A NEW ERA

Pilgrims came from all over the world for the Mass and some said it was because they felt Pope Francis had brought a breath of fresh air to the Church.

"(He) is bringing a new era into the Church, a Church that is focusing much more on the poor and that is more austere, more lively, a Church that cares about everyone in the world," said Ms Dolores Di Benedetto, from the pope's homeland, Argentina.

Mr Giacchino Sabello, an Italian, said he had not been to Midnight Mass in St. Peter's but now wanted to get a first-hand look at the new pope.

"Now I am coming from quite far away, mainly because... I thought it would be very nice to hear the words of this pope close up and to see how the people are overwhelmed by him," Mr Sabello said.

Christmas Eve began a hectic period for the 77-year-old pope, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

On Wednesday at noon (7pm Singapore time), he will deliver the second "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message and blessing of his pontificate. The first was last Easter.

On Dec 31, he celebrates a year-end Mass of thanksgiving inside the basilica and the next days presides at a New Year's Mass to mark the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Peace.

On Jan 6, he will celebrate a Mass in the square on the day the Church marks the feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the magi to the baby Jesus.