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Francis leads first Christmas celebrations as pope

Pope Francis holds up the host as he celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Tuesday.

Associated Press

Pope Francis holds up the host as he celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Tuesday.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis lauded Jesus' humble beginning as a poor and vulnerable baby as he celebrated his first Christmas Eve Mass as pontiff Tuesday in St. Peter's Basilica.

''You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich, and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable," Francis said of Jesus as he delivered his homily in the basilica, packed with the faithful.

Francis has dedicated much of his 9-month-old papacy to drawing attention to the plight of the poor, of children and other vulnerable members of society. He noted that the first to receive news of Jesus' birth were shepherds, who in society were considered ''among the last, the outcast."

The bells of St. Peter's rang as Francis, who turned 77 a week ago, walked briskly up the main aisle of the basilica for the ceremony, which began 2 ½ hours before midnight. Keeping with the theme of humility he has set for his papacy, Francis carried the statue instead of an aide, and kissed a knee of the figure of the newly born Jesus.

The occasional wail of babies in the basilica contrasted at times with the sweet voices of the choir.

The Argentine-born pope has also encouraged his flock to be a joyful church, and he called Jesus' ''the light who brightens the darkness."

In the world's history and our own personal history, Francis said, ''there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows." He added: ''If our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us."

Francis has applied this same vision to the heart of the Vatican's own working, saying in past remarks there is no place for person's ambition in the clerical hierarchy. Rather, he has insisted, the Catholic church must be one of service to those in need.

As he left the basilica in a procession, Francis was preceded by 10 children carrying flowers.

Good cheer in Bethlehem

Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night. The turnout was its highest in years. Excited tourists milled about the town's Manger Square, stopping in restaurants and souvenir shops and admiring a large, illuminated Christmas tree. Marching bands and scout troops performed for the visitors in the streets, and on a stage next to the tree.

Francis leads first Christmas celebrations as pope 12/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:18pm]

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