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In Bethlehem, Near Site of Christ’s Birth, Pope Speaks Out for Children

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Manger Square in Bethlehem, West Bank, on 25 May. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring) 

25 May 2014 – By Francis X. Rocca and Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — Celebrating Mass a few steps from the spot traditionally believed to the birthplace of Jesus, Pope Francis said that the way society treats its young reveals its moral character.

Children are a “diagnostic sign, a marker indicating the health of families, society and the entire world,” the pope said on 25 May in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity. “Wherever children are accepted, loved, cared for and protected, the family is healthy, society is more healthy and the world is more human.”

The Bethlehem Mass was the only Mass for local Christians during Pope Francis’ two days in the West Bank and Israel, the second and third legs of a three-day journey to the Holy Land. The Mass was limited to about 10,000 people, but the crowd was enthusiastic, and many arrived while it was still dark to get a spot.

The altar was set up in front of a large mural of the Nativity, but in place of the Wise Men were the three popes who had previously visited the Holy Land — Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis told those gathered in the square that “children need to be welcomed and defended, from the moment of their conception.”

He said “all too many children continue to be exploited, maltreated, enslaved, prey to violence and illicit trafficking. Still too many children live in exile, as refugees, at times lost at sea, particularly in the waters of the Mediterranean,” he said, in apparent reference to African refugees trying to make their way to Europe.

“Today, in acknowledging this, we feel shame before God, before God who became a child.”

Pope Francis spoke of children used as soldiers and as models for fraudulent charitable appeals.

“Are we perhaps people who use fine and pious words, yet exploit pictures of poor children in order to make money?” he asked.

After the Mass, the pope met with Palestinian refugee children from four different camps in the West Bank. He told them not to let the past hinder them, but to always look to the future.

Before the Mass, as the pope’s helicopter flew over Manger Square on its way to the helipad, the crowd cheered wildly, waving flags and banners. A group of Polish pilgrims, accompanied by a guitar player, sang religious songs outside the fenced-in area on the edges of the square, and another group sang in Spanish. On a stage to the side of the square seminarians sang religious songs in Arabic to choreographed movements. They were replaced later by a youth choir, which sang as the pope arrived.

Locals said the pope’s arrival strengthened them.

“We are very few Christians here,” said Majd Banoura, 57, of Beit Sahour, West Bank. “It gives us strength when the pope comes here. It is a sign that this is the land of the Palestinians, and it gives Christians strength to stay here in this land.”

The pope smiled broadly as he greeted people in the popemobile, which drove along a path where he could greet the maximum number of people. The crowd released white balloons and welcomed him with traditional trilling. Parents held their children aloft on their shoulders so they could catch a glimpse of the pope.

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Tags: Pope Francis Children Bethlehem Holy Land Christians