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Pope Francis contemplates the Crib at Casa Santa Marta Pope Francis contemplates the Crib at Casa Santa Marta  (© Vatican Media)

Pope's Christmas: memories and prayers for our future

In an interview with Italian newspapers “Repubblica” and “La Stampa” Pope Francis reflects on the meaning of Christmas today and thinks back to cherished memories of his childhood in Buenos Aires.

By Adriana Masotti & Linda Bordoni

In the run-up to Christmas festivities, Pope Francis took time to chat with reporters from the Italian daily newspapers “Repubblica” and “La Stampa” with whom he reflected on the significance of Christmas today and recalled memories of growing up in Buenos Aires. He talks about what he liked reading and his favourite sports, but he also turns his attention to the poor, to sick children, to victims of abuse, to the future of humanity.

A Family Christmas

It was tradition for his family in Argentina, the Pope says, to celebrate Christmas on the morning of 25 December at his grandparents' house. Once, he says, "we arrived and his grandmother was still making “cappelletti” (the ring-shaped ravioli filled with meat). She made them by hand and had produced 400 of them! We were amazed! Our whole family was there: uncles and cousins came too." Today, the Pope says, Christmas "is always a surprise. It is the Lord who comes to visit us," a surprise for which he prepares himself by preparing to "meet God." He reveals that he loves Christmas songs like "Silent Night" and the Italian "Tu scendi dalle stelle” that, he says, convey  “peace and hope, and create an atmosphere of joy for the Son of God who is born on earth like us, for us."

The poor and sick children in his thoughts

At Christmas, the Holy Father says, his thoughts go to the poor, who are like Jesus who was born poor, and then "to all those who are forgotten, the abandoned, the least, and in particular to abused and enslaved children. “To hear the stories of vulnerable adults and children who are exploited makes me angry and makes me cry,” he says. There is also a special place in his heart for children who at Christmas are in hospitals, he adds, noting that there are no words when faced with their suffering: "we can only cling to faith." And to parents of healthy children he says, “don’t forget how lucky you are" inviting them to spend more time with their offspring. Pope Francis has words of esteem for doctors, medics and all health care personnel in hospitals: "Often we do not realize the greatness of the daily work of these doctors, nurses and health care workers, and instead we must all be grateful to each of them”.

Playing soccer as a goalkeeper, cherished books

Recalling that only a few days ago he turned 85, Pope Francis answers a question about how he used to celebrate his birthday as a child. "It was a party for the whole family," he says, "My mom used to make very thick hot chocolate." Best of all during his childhood, he says, was playing soccer played in a square near his home with all the neighbourhood kids. Often the ball was made of rags, the "pelota de trapo," which became a cultural symbol in Argentina at the time. He said he wasn’t very good and kept to the role of goalkeeper where he did his best. “Being a goalkeeper was a great school of life for me. The goalkeeper has to be ready to respond to dangers that can come from all sides...." The young Jorge Maria Bergoglio also played basketball, and reading was held in high regard in his family. In particular, he reveals, his father was an avid reader. Some titles that most helped him in his formation and growth are "Cuore" by Edmondo De Amicis, the novels of Jorge Luis Borges and Fëdor Dostoevskij, and the poems of Friedrich Hölderlin. Also "The Betrothed" and the "Divine Comedy" of which his father would recite some passages by heart. "It was from him that I heard these verses for the first time: "Thou Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son, Humble and high beyond all other creature. The limit fixed of the eternal counsel, Thou art the one who such nobility To human nature gave, that its Creator Did not disdain to make himself its creature.” And then the third canticle from Inferno: "All hope abandon ye who enter here.” Mom meanwhile would tell her children about the operas broadcast on the radio and take us to the theatre. Reading, Pope Francis says, "is a dialogue with the book itself, it's a moment of intimacy that neither TV nor tablets can give."

A touch of nostalgia, but not melancholy

The conversation continues with a question that brings Pope Francis back to today: does he have nostalgia for his youth? Sometimes, the Pope admits, remembering good times like when he turned 16, as was the tradition in Argentina, and wore long pants for the first time - it was like a debut into society – and witnessing the emotion of his maternal grandmother, Maria, in seeing him like that. Grandmother Rosa, "was more reserved, she spoke little, but understood everything". I'm nostalgic for the moments I lived with them and with my grandparents, he says, but "melancholy doesn't get to me" and adds: "Maybe because of my personal background, I don't allow myself to bask in it.  Also perhaps because I got my character from my mom, who was always looking ahead." Among the people he says he misses the most are his three siblings, whom he thinks of with serenity, imagining them "at peace".

A day that begins at four in the morning

When asked about his current health following surgery at the Gemelli Hospital in summer, the Pope assures that he is well, so much so, “that he has been able to make several trips" and plans to undertake others “if the Lord wills in 2022". He describes his typical day with an unchanged rhythm: "I always get up at 4 am and immediately start praying. Then I get on with my commitments and various appointments. I only allow myself a short siesta after lunch.”

Our future depends on solidarity at all levels

The interview concludes with the Pope looking to the future of a humanity that is wounded by the pandemic, by conflicts and divisions. The future will depend, he says, "on whether we build or rebuild it together," because we will be saved only if we commit to universal fraternity. "This, however, means that the international community, the Church – starting with the Pope - the institutions, all those with political and social responsibilities, and also every single citizen, particularly in the richest countries, does not and must not forget the weakest, the most fragile and defenseless regions and people, those who are victims of indifference and selfishness." This is my prayer, says Pope Francis, "I pray that this Christmas, God may inspire more generosity and solidarity on earth," in concrete deeds. In conclusion, he expresses his hope "that Christmas warms the hearts of those who suffer, and opens and strengthens ours so that they burn with the desire to help those most in need.”

24 December 2021, 11:08