Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges pilgrims during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Nov. 4, 2009. Pope Benedict died Dec. 31, 2022, at the age of 95 in his residence at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Retired Pope Benedict XVI, who had an impressive record as a teacher and defender of the basics of Catholic faith, is likely to go down in history books as the first pope in almost 600 years to resign.

He died Dec. 31 at the age of 95, nearly 10 years after leaving the papacy to retire to what he said would be a life of prayer and study.

Pope Francis was scheduled to celebrate his predecessor’s funeral Jan. 5 in St. Peter’s Square. Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, said the funeral rites would be simple in keeping with the wishes of the late pope.

As the retired pope neared death, he was given the anointing of the sick Dec. 28 in his residence, Bruni said.

His body was to lie in St. Peter’s Basilica beginning Jan. 2 so that people could pay their respects and offer their prayers, he said.

A close collaborator of St. John Paul II and the theological expert behind many of his major teachings and gestures, Pope Benedict came to the papacy after 24 years heading the doctrinal congregation’s work of safeguarding Catholic teaching on faith and morals, correcting the work of some Catholic theologians and ensuring the theological solidity of the documents issued by other Vatican offices.

As pope, he continued writing as a theologian, but also made historically important gestures to Catholics who had difficulty accepting all of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, particularly about the liturgy. In 2007, he widened permission to use the “extraordinary” or pre-Vatican II form of the Mass and, a short time later, extended a hand to the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X. Besides lifting the excommunications of four of the society’s bishops who were ordained illicitly in 1988, he launched a long and intense dialogue with the group. In the end, though, the talks broke down.

His papacy, which began when he was 78, was extremely busy for a man who already had a pacemaker and who had wanted to retire to study, write and pray when he turned 75. He used virtually every medium at his disposal — books and Twitter, sermons and encyclicals — to catechize the faithful on the foundational beliefs and practices of Christianity, ranging from the sermons of St. Augustine to the sign of the cross.

Pope Benedict was the first pope to meet with victims of clerical sexual abuse. He clarified church laws to expedite cases and mandated that bishops’ conferences put in place stringent norms against abuse.

Although he did not expect to travel much, he ended up making 24 trips to six continents and three times presided over World Youth Day mega-gatherings: in Germany in 2005, Australia in 2008, and Spain in 2011.

On a historic visit to the United States in 2008, the pope brought his own identity into clearer focus for Americans. He set forth a moral challenge on issues ranging from economic justice to abortion. He also took church recognition of the priestly sex-abuse scandal to a new level, expressing his personal shame at what happened and personally praying with victims.

While still in his 30s, he served as an influential adviser during the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, and as pope, he made it a priority to correct what he saw as overly expansive interpretations of Vatican II in favor of readings that stressed the council’s continuity with the church’s millennial traditions.

Under his oversight, the Vatican continued to highlight the church’s moral boundaries on issues such as end-of-life medical care, marriage and homosexuality. But the pope’s message to society at large focused less on single issues and more on the risk of losing the basic relationship between the human being and the Creator.

Surprising those who had expected a by-the-book pontificate from a man who had spent so many years as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal official, Pope Benedict emphasized that Christianity was a religion of love and not a religion of rules.

The German-born pontiff did not try to match the popularity of St. John Paul, but the millions of people who came to see him in Rome and abroad came to appreciate his smile, his frequent ad-libs and his ability to speak from the heart.

Some of Pope Benedict’s most memorable statements came when he applied simple Gospel values to social issues such as the protection of human life, the environment and economics. When the global financial crisis worsened in 2008, for example, the pope insisted that financial institutions must put people before profits. He also reminded people that money and worldly success are passing realities, saying: “Whoever builds his life on these things – on material things, on success, on appearances – is building on sand.”

He consistently warned the West that unless its secularized society rediscovered religious values, it could not hope to engage in real dialogue with Muslims and members of other religious traditions.

In his encyclicals and in his books on “Jesus of Nazareth,” the pope honed that message, asking readers to discover the essential connections between sacrificial love, works of charity, a dedication to the truth and the Gospel of Christ.

The retired pope looked in-depth at his papacy and resignation, his relationships with St. John Paul and Pope Francis and a host of other issues in “Last Testament,” a book-length interview with journalist Peter Seewald published in 2016.

In the book, Pope Benedict insisted once again that he was not pressured by anyone or any event to resign and he did not feel he was running away from any problem. However, he acknowledged “practical governance was not my forte, and this certainly was a weakness.”

Insisting “my hour had passed, and I had given all I could,” Pope Benedict said he never regretted resigning, but he did regret hurting friends and faithful who were “really distressed and felt forsaken” by his stepping down.

Less than a month after resigning, he already looked frailer and walked with noticeably more difficulty than he did when he left office. The video images released by the Vatican March 23, 2013, when his successor, Pope Francis, visited him at Castel Gandolfo underscored the “diminishing energy” Pope Benedict had said led to his resignation.

Pope Benedict moved to the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo Feb. 28, 2013, the day his resignation took effect. He remained at the villa south of Rome for two months – a period that included the conclave that elected Pope Francis as his successor and the first month of the new pope’s pontificate. The retired pope moved back to the Vatican May 2, 2013, living in a monastery remodeled as a residence for him, his secretary and the consecrated women who cared for his household before and after his resignation.

On his only post-retirement trip outside of Italy, he flew to Germany in June 2020 for a five-day visit with his ailing 96-year-old brother.

Answering questions from reporters on a flight back from Brazil in July 2013, Pope Francis spoke with admiration of the retired pope’s humility, intelligence and prayerfulness. The unusual situation of having a pope and a retired pope both living at the Vatican was working out very well, Pope Francis said. Having the retired pope nearby to consult with, or ask questions of, Pope Francis said, was “like having a grandfather at home – a very wise grandfather.”

By the time Pope Benedict had been retired for a year, his daily routine was set. Archbishop Georg Ganswein, his personal secretary, said his days began with Mass, morning prayer and breakfast. Although mostly hidden from public view, he was not cloistered, but continued welcoming old friends and colleagues, engaging in dialogue or offering spiritual counsel. He spent hours reading and dealing with correspondence before a 4 p.m. stroll in the garden and recitation of the rosary.

In the early days of his retirement, to the delight and surprise of pilgrims and cardinals, Pope Benedict appeared at major events with Pope Francis, including the opening of the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica Dec. 8, 2015.

At a June 2016 celebration in the Apostolic Palace, where Pope Benedict once lived and worked, Pope Francis, top officials of the Roman Curia and a few friends gathered with him to mark the 65th anniversary of the retired pontiff’s priestly ordination.
Pope Francis told Pope Benedict that with him in residence, the monastery in the Vatican Gardens “emanates tranquility, peace, strength, faithfulness, maturity, faith, dedication and loyalty, which does so much good for me and gives strength to me and to the whole church.”

Pope Benedict replied to Pope Francis, “More than the beauty found in the Vatican Gardens, your goodness is the place where I live; I feel protected.”

He prayed that Pope Francis would continue to “lead us all on this path of divine mercy that shows the path of Jesus, to Jesus and to God.”

Mercy was a prominent topic in an interview Pope Benedict gave in 2015. The Catholic focus on mercy really began with St. John Paul, the retired pope told Belgian Jesuit Father Jacques Servais in the written interview, which was not released until March 2016.

From his experience as a youth during World War II and his ministry under communism in Poland, St. John Paul “affirmed that mercy is the only true and ultimately effective reaction against the power of evil. Only where there is mercy does cruelty end, only there do evil and violence stop,” said Pope Benedict, who worked closely with the Polish pope for decades.

“Pope Francis,” he said, “is in complete agreement with this line. His pastoral practice is expressed precisely in the fact that he speaks continuously of God’s mercy.”

Pope Benedict had said he planned to live a “hidden life” in retirement — and to a large extent he did. But when he did make contributions to public discussions, they became headline news. In April 2019, for instance, what he described as “notes” on the clerical sexual abuse crisis were published; and, in January 2020, an essay he wrote on priestly celibacy was published in a book by Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

In the text on abuse, which the retired pope said was motivated by the February 2019 Vatican summit on the crisis, Pope Benedict traced the abuse crisis to a loss of certainty about faith and morals, especially beginning in the late 1960s. To address the crisis, he wrote, “what is required first and foremost is the renewal of the faith in the reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.”

The 2020 text on celibacy became the center of a media storm, not only because of its content, but also because Catholics were awaiting Pope Francis’ official response to the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon and suggestions made there that in remote areas the church could consider ordaining some married men to take the sacraments to Catholics who usually go months without.

Since marriage and priesthood both demand the total devotion and self-giving of a man to his vocation, “it does not seem possible to realize both vocations simultaneously,” Pope Benedict wrote in his essay.

The retired pope’s contribution to the discussion became even more controversial when Archbishop Ganswein informed media and the original publisher that while Pope Benedict contributed an essay to Cardinal Sarah’s book, he did not want to be listed as co-author of the volume.

As inevitable as his election seemed after St. John Paul died in 2005, Pope Benedict’s path to the papacy was long and indirect.

Joseph Ratzinger was born April 16, 1927, in the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn, the third and youngest child of a police officer, Joseph Sr., and his wife, Maria. Young Joseph joined his brother, Georg, at a minor seminary in 1939.

Like other young students in Germany at the time, he was automatically enrolled in the Hitler Youth program, but soon stopped going to meetings. During World War II, he was conscripted into the army, and in the spring of 1945, he deserted his unit and returned home, spending a few months in an Allied prisoner-of-war camp. He returned to the seminary late in 1945 and was ordained six years later, along with his brother.

In a meeting with young people in 2006, the pope said witnessing the brutality of the Nazi regime helped persuade him to become a priest. But he also had to overcome some doubts, he said. For one thing, he asked himself whether he “could faithfully live celibacy” his entire life. He also recognized that his real leanings were toward theology and wondered whether he had the qualities of a good pastor and the ability “to be simple with the simple people.”

After a short stint as a parish priest, the future pope began a teaching career and built a reputation as one of the church’s foremost theologians. At Vatican II, he made important contributions as a theological expert and embraced the council’s early work. But he began to have misgivings about an emerging anti-Roman bias, the idea of a “church from below” run on a parliamentary model, and the direction of theological research in the church — criticism that would become even sharper in later years.

In a 2005 speech that served as a kind of manifesto for his young papacy, Pope Benedict rejected what he called a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” in interpreting Vatican II as a radical break with the past. The pope called instead for reading the council through a “hermeneutic of reform” in continuity with Catholic tradition.

In 1977, St. Paul VI named him archbishop of Munich and Freising and, four years later, Pope John Paul called him to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he wielded great influence on issues such as liberation theology, dissent from church teachings and pressure for women’s ordination. Serving in this role for nearly a quarter century, then-Cardinal Ratzinger earned a reputation in some quarters as a sort of grand inquisitor, seeking to stamp out independent thinking, an image belied by his passion for debate with thinkers inside and outside the church.

As the newly elected pope in 2005, he explained that he took the name Benedict to evoke the memory of Pope Benedict XV, a “courageous prophet of peace” during World War I, and said he wanted to place his ministry at the service of reconciliation and harmony among peoples.

Like his namesake and his predecessors, he was untiring in his appeals for an end to violence in world trouble spots and for dialogue as the only true and lasting solution to conflict. Another key to building a better world, he said repeatedly, is to respect the right of each person to seek and to worship God.

A direct appeal to China’s communist government to respect the religious freedom of its people was a central part of Pope Benedict’s 2007 Letter to Chinese Catholics. The letter also pleaded with the faithful on the mainland to work toward reconciliation between communities that had accepted some government control in order to minister openly and those that continued to practice their faith more clandestinely.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and amid reports of rising religious-inspired violence in various parts of the world, Pope Benedict also repeatedly and clearly condemned all violence committed in the name of God.

One of the biggest tests of his papacy came after a lecture at Germany’s University of Regensburg, in 2006, when he quoted a Christian medieval emperor who said the prophet Muhammad had brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Protests in the Muslim world followed, and Pope Benedict apologized that his words had offended Muslims, distancing himself from the text he had quoted. Soon after, he accepted the invitation of an international group of Muslim scholars and leaders to launch a new dialogue initiative, “The Common Word,” looking at teachings that Christians and Muslims share.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The day after Pope Francis told people retired Pope Benedict was “very sick” and in need of prayers, the Vatican said he had had a restful night and described him as being in serious, but stable condition.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI is pictured with Ratzinger prize winners Joseph H. H. Weiler, a professor of law at New York University School of Law, and Jesuit Father Michel Fédou, professor of dogmatic theology and patristics at the Centre Sèvres of Paris, at the Mater Ecclesia monastery at the Vatican Dec. 1, 2022. (CNS photo/courtesy Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation)

“I would like to ask all of you for a special prayer for emeritus Pope Benedict,” Pope Francis had said at the end of his weekly general audience Dec. 28.

The 95-year-old retired pope “is sustaining the church in silence,” Pope Francis said. “Remember him. He is very sick.”

“Ask the Lord to console him and sustain him in his witness of love for the church until the very end,” Pope Francis said.

Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, told reporters that Pope Francis went to Pope Benedict’s residence after the audience to visit him.

“I can confirm that in the last few hours there has been a worsening (of Pope Benedict’s health) due to advancing age,” Bruni said. “The situation at the moment remains under control, constantly followed by doctors.”

In a statement to reporters the next day, Bruni said the retired pope had rested well overnight and “is absolutely lucid and alert.”

“Although his condition remains serious,” Bruni said, as of midday Dec. 29 he was stable.

“Pope Francis renews his invitation to pray for him and accompany him in these difficult hours,” Bruni added.

Cardinals, bishops, bishops’ conferences and faithful around the world offered prayers for the ailing former pope and the Diocese of Rome announced that an evening Mass would be offered Dec. 30 in the Basilica of St. John Lateran “for our beloved Benedict XVI.”

In the 24 hours after Pope Francis asked for prayers for his predecessor, news crews started heading to St. Peter’s Square to give updates, although there was not much new to report. The square was filled with pilgrims, tourists and families taking advantage of the holidays to see the Nativity scene and visit St. Peter’s Basilica.

On Feb. 11, 2013, Pope Benedict announced that he would retire effective Feb. 28 that year. He spent the first several months of his retirement at the papal summer villa in Castel Gandolfo before moving into the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican Gardens where he has lived since.

The retired pope has looked increasingly frail, but as recently as Dec. 1 the foundation that promotes his theological work released photos of him meeting with the two winners of the Ratzinger Prize. He also met in August at the monastery with Pope Francis and the new cardinals the pope had just created.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The interconnected “moral, social, political and economic crises” facing the world cannot be solved if individuals and nations continue to focus only on their own, immediate interests, Pope Francis said in his message for World Peace Day 2023.

“The time has come for all of us to endeavor to heal our society and our planet, to lay the foundations for a more just and peaceful world, and to commit ourselves seriously to pursuing a good that is truly common,” the pope wrote in the message, which was released at the Vatican Dec. 16.

The Catholic Church celebrates World Peace Day Jan. 1 and distributes the pope’s message to heads of state and government around the world. Pope Francis personally gives signed copies of it to visiting leaders throughout the year.

The theme for the pope’s 2023 message was “No one can be saved alone,” and the text urged people to learn from the experience of the global effort to combat COVID-19 and to recognize the poverty and inequalities the pandemic laid bare, especially as regards to access to food, medicine, health care, education and technology.

Pope Francis asked people to reflect on a series of questions: “What did we learn from the pandemic? What new paths should we follow to cast off the shackles of our old habits, to be better prepared, to dare new things? What signs of life and hope can we see, to help us move forward and try to make our world a better place?”

As soon as it seemed the pandemic was nearly over, the pope wrote, “a terrible new disaster befell humanity. We witnessed the onslaught of another scourge: another war.”

Russia’s war on Ukraine, he said, “is reaping innocent victims and spreading insecurity, not only among those directly affected, but in a widespread and indiscriminate way for everyone, also for those who, even thousands of kilometers away, suffer its collateral effects,” including rising fuel prices and shortages of grain.

“This war, together with all the other conflicts around the globe, represents a setback for the whole of humanity and not merely for the parties directly involved,” the pope said.

Massive cooperative efforts led to vaccines for COVID-19, he said, but “suitable solutions have not yet been found for the war,” even though it is true “the virus of war is more difficult to overcome than the viruses that compromise our bodies, because it comes, not from outside of us, but from within the human heart corrupted by sin.”

Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, presented the message at a news conference and spoke to Catholic News Service afterward.

“The message gives me hope because it puts a finger on not what some important person needs to do but what each of us needs to do, which is just to take the time to ask ourselves, ‘What did I learn or not learn? And how is my life going to change from there?” the cardinal said. “Hopefully, the lessons will be for the good of everyone.”

People’s experience of the pandemic, the lockdowns, the possibility of continuing to work and the scrambling for vaccines were different around the world, he said, but that experience loses its power if people do not reflect on it and share it.

Pope Francis’ message, he said, is a reminder “that we are too quick to forget” and then humanity is forced to move on to the next disaster without having made changes to alleviate suffering.

Salesian Sister Alessandra Smerilli, secretary of the dicastery, told reporters the pope was asking people “to return for a moment to those frightening, difficult and painful moments” at the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020. “This is time to ask ourselves whether, as individuals and a community, are we better or worse off three years later?”

Simone Cristicchi, an Italian singer and songwriter, Salesian Sister Alessandra Smerilli, secretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the same dicastery, are pictured at a news conference Dec. 16, 2022, for the release of Pope Francis’ message for World Peace Day, which will be celebrated Jan. 1. (CNS photo/Cindy Wooden)

The reflection, Pope Francis wrote, should encourage people to change from a self-centered focus to a real commitment to the common good and to promoting solidarity and a greater sense of fraternity.

Cooperative efforts are needed to ensure health care for all and to “put an end to the conflicts and wars that continue to spawn poverty and death,” he said. People must work together to combat climate change, overcome inequality, end hunger and create dignified work for all.

“We also need to develop suitable policies for welcoming and integrating migrants and those whom our societies discard,” the pope said. “Only by responding generously to these situations, with an altruism inspired by God’s infinite and merciful love, will we be able to build a new world and contribute to the extension of his kingdom, which is a kingdom of love, justice and peace.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Saying that retired Pope Benedict XVI was “very sick,” Pope Francis asked people to offer special prayers for him.

“I would like to ask all of you for a special prayer for emeritus Pope Benedict,” Pope Francis said at the end of his weekly general audience Dec. 28.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI is pictured with Ratzinger prize winners Joseph H. H. Weiler, a professor of law at New York University School of Law, and Jesuit Father Michel Fédou, professor of dogmatic theology and patristics at the Centre Sèvres of Paris, at the Mater Ecclesia monastery at the Vatican Dec. 1, 2022. (CNS photo/courtesy Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation)

The 95-year-old retired pope “is sustaining the church in silence,” Pope Francis said. “Remember him. He is very sick.”

“Ask the Lord to console him and sustain him in his witness of love for the church until the very end,” Pope Francis said.

The Vatican press office did not immediately respond to requests for more information about the retired pope.

On Feb. 11, 2013, Pope Benedict announced that he would retire effective Feb. 28 that year. He spent the first several months of his retirement at the papal summer villa in Castel Gandolfo before moving into the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican Gardens where he has lived since.

The retired pope has looked increasingly frail, but as recently as Dec. 1 the foundation that promotes his theological work released photos of him meeting with the two winners of the Ratzinger Prize. He also met in August at the monastery with Pope Francis and the new cardinals the pope had just created.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The birth of Jesus in a stable “shows us God’s ‘style,’ which is closeness, compassion, and tenderness,” Pope Francis told visitors and pilgrims at his weekly general audience.

Pope Francis greets a child at his general audience Dec. 28, 2022, in the Vatican audience hall. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

On the church’s calendar Christmas was not over when the pope held his audience Dec. 28, and he insisted it is important for Christians to use the season to contemplate the meaning of Jesus becoming human and being born into the poverty and simplicity of the manger.

“With this style of his, God draws us to himself,” the pope said. “He does not take us by force, He does not impose his truth and justice on us. He wants to draw us with love, with tenderness.”

Basing his Christmas reflections on the teachings of St. Francis de Sales, a bishop and doctor of the church, Pope Francis announced at the audience that he was publishing an apostolic letter that day marking the 400th anniversary of the death of the French saint and theologian.

The letter, titled “Totum Amoris Est” (“Everything Pertains to Love”), would be published later the same day.

But rather than quoting from his apostolic letter, Pope Francis quoted from St. Francis de Sales’ meditations on Christmas and, especially, his focus on the love of God and on the poverty of Jesus’ birth.

“Who is Jesus? Looking at the manger, looking at the cross, looking at his life, his simplicity, we can know who Jesus is,” the pope said. “Jesus is the son of God who saves us by becoming man, stripping himself of his glory and humbling himself.”

In one of his letters to St. Jeanne Frances de Chantal, co-founder with St. Francis de Sales of the Visitation Sisters, the French saint wrote, “I would a hundred times rather see the dear Jesus in his crib, than all the kings of the world on their thrones.”

Pope Francis told people at the audience that the Gospel of Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus and its focus on the manger “means that it is very important not only as a logistical detail, but as a symbolic element to understand what kind of messiah” Jesus is.

His birth in a stable and his death on a cross show the way “God draws us to himself,” the pope said. “He does not take us by force, he does not impose his truth and justice on us. He wants to draw us with love, with tenderness.”

Whatever kind of person God is dealing with, Pope Francis said, “God has found the means to attract us however we are: with love. Not a possessive and selfish love, as unfortunately human love so often is. His love is pure gift, pure grace, it is all and only for us, for our good. And so, he draws us in, with this disarmed and disarming love.”

St. Francis de Sales also writes about the simplicity, the real poverty of the manger, Pope Francis said. “And, really, there is poverty there.”

Writing to the Visitation Sisters, the saint said, “Do you see the baby Jesus in the crib? He accepts all the discomforts of that season, the bitter cold and everything that the Father lets happen to him.”

“Here, dear brothers and sisters, is a great teaching, which comes to us from the child Jesus through the wisdom of St Francis de Sales,” Pope Francis said, and it is “to desire nothing and reject nothing, to accept everything that God sends us. But be careful! Always and only out of love, because God loves us and only ever wants our good.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The most important question a Christian can ask when making any decision in life is “where the greatest love is to be found,” Pope Francis wrote in a letter marking the 400th anniversary of St. Francis de Sales, a doctor of the church.

Thinking about the legacy of St. Francis, who was born in France in 1567 and died in 1622, Pope Francis said he was convinced that the French saint’s “flexibility and his farsighted vision have much to say to us,” especially in recognizing the real-life struggles of ordinary people and judging faith by love.

A likeness of St. Francis de Sales is seen in stained glass at Caldwell Chapel on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington May 25, 2021. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The pope’s letter was titled “Totum Amoris Est” (“Everything Pertains to Love”) and was released by the Vatican Dec. 28, the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Francis de Sales, who was bishop of Geneva, Switzerland, co-founder of the Visitation Sisters and a prolific writer, including of tracts he would slip under the doors of people’s homes.

In a letter that quoted heavily from St. Francis’ books, “Treatise on the Love of God” and “Introduction to the Devout Life,” but also from his own exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis said the saint has much to teach the church today.

“We are challenged to be a church that is outward-looking and free of all worldliness, even as we live in this world, share people’s lives and journey with them in attentive listening and acceptance,” the pope wrote. “That is what Francis de Sales did when he discerned the events of his times with the help of God’s grace.”

“Today he bids us set aside undue concern for ourselves, for our structures and for what society thinks about us, and consider instead the real spiritual needs and expectations of our people,” the pope said.

Returning in 1602 to Paris, where he previously studied, St. Francis de Sales saw a world changing around him, the pope said, and he knew that he must respond theologically and pastorally.

“This was certainly not the first time that he had encountered individual fervent Christians, but now things were different,” the pope said. “Paris was no longer the city devastated by the wars of religion that he had known in the years of his education, or by the bitter conflicts that he had seen in the Chablais,” a region on the border of France and Switzerland.

“He encountered something unexpected: a flood ‘of saints, true saints, in great numbers and in all places,'” as St. Francis described them. “There were men and women of culture, professors of the Sorbonne, civil authorities, princes and princesses, servants and maids, men and women religious. A whole world athirst for God in a variety of ways.”

The saintly bishop developed a new approach to spiritual direction, the pope said. “It was a method that renounced all harshness and respected completely the dignity and gifts of a devout soul, whatever its frailties.”

Like the Second Vatican Council would teach 350 years later, the pope wrote, St. Francis de Sales knew that every person was called to holiness and that the call was specific to each person and his or her talents, shortcomings and state in life.

And, he said, the saint knew that the call was a grace, poured out with love.

“At the same time, this grace never makes us passive. It leads us to realize that God’s love radically precedes us, and that his first gift consists precisely in our acceptance of that love,” the pope wrote. “Each person therefore is responsible for cooperating with his or her own fulfillment, with spreading his or her wings with confident trust before the gust of God’s wind.”

“More important than any kind of useless rigidity or self-absorption,” Pope Francis wrote, St. Francis de Sales encouraged the faithful “to keep asking at every moment, in every decision, in every situation in life, where the greatest love is to be found.”

St. John Paul II, he noted, referred to St. Francis de Sales as the “Doctor of Divine Love,” not primarily because he wrote about divine love, but because “he was an outstanding witness to that love.”

“His writings were no theory concocted behind a desk, far from the concerns of ordinary people,” Pope Francis said. “His teachings were the fruit of a great sensitivity to experience.”

“To live in the midst of the secular city while nurturing the interior life, to combine the desire for perfection with every state of life, and to discover an interior peace that does not separate us from the world but teaches us how to live in it and to appreciate it, but also to maintain a proper detachment from it — that was the aim of Francis de Sales, and it remains a valuable lesson for men and women in our own time,” the pope wrote.

WASHINGTON (CNS) – In an end-of-the year decision, the Supreme Court said Dec. 27 that a federal public health rule that allows immigration officials at the border to quickly turn away migrants seeking asylum could stay in place while legal challenges to the policy played out.

A view of the Paso del Norte International Bridge crossing between Mexico and the U.S. is seen as Venezuelan migrants stand in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on the edge of the Rio Grande Dec. 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

In a 5-4 decision, the justices stopped a trial judge’s ruling that would have lifted the measure, known as Title 42 of the Public Health Services Act, on Dec. 21.

Chief Justice John Roberts had already put that order on pause Dec. 19 responding to an emergency request filed by 19 states asking the justices to keep Title 42 in place.

The Trump administration used the public health measure during the pandemic to allow U.S. border officials to expel migrants quickly without giving them an opportunity to seek asylum in the United States.

“Our hearts (are) broken by this decision and the many people that will be further harmed because of it,” tweeted the Interfaith Immigration Coalition Dec. 27.

They said that as people of faith, they were calling on President Joe Biden to “do everything in his power to welcome people seeking safety with the compassion they deserve.”

The justices agreed to hear arguments about enforcement of Title 42 at the border in February. In their brief unsigned order, they said the rule will remain in place for now and they will only consider whether the states challenging it have the legal right to do so.

In a dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, emphasized that the Biden administration and Congress have failed to adequately address the immigration crisis and also said the nation’s high court is not meant to issue policies.

He said he did not discount concerns raised by the state attorneys general and also acknowledged that lifting Title 42 “will likely have disruptive consequences,” but he said the reason it was enforced, as a public health measure, is no longer valid.

“The current border crisis is not a COVID crisis,” he wrote, adding that the courts “should not be in the business of perpetuating administrative edicts designed for one emergency only because elected officials have failed to address a different emergency. We are a court of law, not policymakers of last resort.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan indicated they would have allowed the federal judge’s ruling ending Title 42 to stand, but they did not join the dissent.

Title 42 gives the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the power to bar the entry of individuals into the United States to protect the public from contagious diseases.

The Biden administration initially extended the policy used by the Trump administration but in April it announced that it would end it, saying it was no longer necessary to protect public health.

A federal judge in Louisiana said the administration had not followed proper procedures in trying end Title 42 and ordered that it stay in place. The administration has appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, where it remains pending.

In a separate case, a federal judge in Washington ruled that the policy itself was illegal and ordered the government to end it, which was challenged by 19 states with Republican attorneys general.

After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected the states’ request to join the case, the states came to the Supreme Court urging the court to keep the policy in place and saying that lifting it would “cause a crisis of unprecedented proportions at the border.”

Migrant families challenging the policy say the states’ support for Title 42 is not based on pandemic concerns. They also said the policy has had a devastating impact on those forced to return to “cartels and others ready to abduct and exploit them.”

Migrant advocates, including Catholic church organizations, women religious and Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ migration committee, have strongly supported ending Title 42.

Texas border cities, like El Paso, had been preparing for the surge of new migrants as the pandemic-era rule was scheduled to end.

In mid-December, Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute, a Catholic organization helping migrants, said constant changing policies make it hard for organizations such as his to plan.

“You have a lot of pent-up pain,” he told The Associated Press, noting that with government border policies in disarray, “the majority of the work falls to faith communities to pick up the pieces and deal with the consequences.”

In October, Bishop Seitz issued a statement expressing his disappointment that Title 42 had been expanded to Venezuelans seeking to cross the border.

“Now we must all work harder, especially the faith community, to build a culture of hospitality that respects the dignity of those who migrate, and to continue to press lawmakers and the Biden administration to establish a safe, humane, functioning and rights-respecting system to ensure protection to those in need,” he said.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The day after Christmas the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which emphasizes how the story of Jesus’ birth is not a “fairy tale,” but a call to live as witnesses of the Gospel, Pope Francis said.

Marking the feast Dec. 26, a public holiday in Italy, Pope Francis led the recitation of the Angelus prayer at noon with thousands of visitors and pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis waves to visitors and pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican for the recitation of the Angelus prayer Dec. 26, the feast of St. Stephen. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

By putting the martyrdom of St. Stephen on the calendar the day after Christmas, he said, “the liturgy really seems to want to steer us away from the world of lights, lunches and gifts in which we might indulge somewhat in these days.”

The point, he said, is that “Christmas is not the fairy tale of the birth of a king, but it is the coming of the Savior, who frees us from evil by taking upon himself our evil: selfishness, sin, death.”

The Bible says St. Stephen was a deacon, the pope said, which “means that his first witness was not given in words, but through the love with which he served those most in need.”

At the same time, the Acts of the Apostles describes how Stephen spoke of Jesus to those he met, sharing with them the faith.

“However, his greatest testimony is yet another: that he knew how to unite charity and proclamation,” the pope said, by “following the example of Jesus” and forgiving those who were about to kill him.

St. Stephen shows that “we can improve our witness through charity toward our brothers and sisters, faithfulness to God’s word and forgiveness,” the pope said. “It is forgiveness that tells whether we really practice charity toward others and live the word of Jesus.”

Over the holidays, when many people are spending time with family and friends, there may be “someone with whom we have not gotten along, who has hurt us, with whom we have never mended the relationship,” the pope said. “Let us ask the newborn Jesus for the newness of a heart that can forgive: We all need a forgiving heart!”

Pope Francis also used the occasion once again to wish people peace — “peace in families, peace in parishes and religious communities, peace in movements and associations, peace for those peoples tormented by war, peace for the dear and embattled Ukraine.”

Noting that many people in the crowd held Ukrainian flags, the pope again said, “Let us ask for peace for this suffering people!”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – With the birth of Jesus, God became flesh to share the joys and sorrows, hopes and fears of all people, especially the poor and those living daily amid danger, Pope Francis said in his Christmas message.

“He comes as a helpless child. He is born in the cold night, poor among the poor. In need of everything, he knocks at the door of our heart to find warmth and shelter,” the pope said Dec. 25 before giving his blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world).

Pope Francis delivers his Christmas blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world) from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 25, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square under warm, sunny skies for the blessing and for the pope’s message inviting people to pay less attention to presents and more to prayer, particularly for Ukraine and other places where war and strife challenge the angels’ proclamation of “peace on earth.”

“Let us leave behind the hue and din that deadens our hearts and makes us spend more time in preparing decorations and gifts than in contemplating the great event: the son of God born for us,” Pope Francis told people in the square and those listening by radio or watching on television or online.

“Brothers and sisters,” he told them, “let us turn our eyes to Bethlehem and listen to the first faint cries of the Prince of Peace. For truly Jesus is our peace.”

The incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus “opened the way that leads from a world closed in on itself and oppressed by the dark shadows of enmity and war, to a world that is open and free to live in fraternity and peace,” the pope said.

To follow Jesus’ path of peace, he said, “we must divest ourselves of the burdens that weigh us down and block our way,” the same obstacles that prevented King Herod from welcoming the birth of Jesus: “attachment to power and money, pride, hypocrisy, falsehood.”

In the “small and innocent face” of the baby Jesus lying in the manger, he urged, “let us see the faces of all those children who, everywhere in the world, long for peace.”

In his 10th Christmas message as pope, Pope Francis denounced the “grave famine of peace” around the globe.

Mentioning specific hot spots, he started with Ukraine, praying for those celebrating Christmas “in the dark and cold, far from their homes due to the devastation caused by 10 months of war.”

The pope urged people to continue being generous in making donations and welcoming people displaced by the fighting. His almoner, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, was spending Christmas in Ukraine, delivering generators and warm clothing and other aid in the pope’s name.

May God “enlighten the minds of those who have the power to silence the thunder of weapons and put an immediate end to this senseless war,” he prayed.

And while Ukraine dominates the news, Pope Francis also prayed for peace in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and across the Sahel region of Africa.

Turning to the Holy Land, “where in recent months violence and confrontations have increased, bringing death and injury in their wake,” he prayed that “there, in the land that witnessed his birth, dialogue and efforts to build mutual trust between Israelis and Palestinians may resume.”

In Lebanon, where economic and political crises continue, the pope prayed that the country can “finally rebound with the help of the international community and with the strength born of fraternity and solidarity.”

In Central and South America, where “political and social tensions” continue in several nations, the pope prayed that the light of Christ would inspire political leaders and all people of good will.

And he offered special prayers for “the people of Haiti who have been suffering for a long time.”

Knowing that many people in St. Peter’s Square and watching around the world would soon be sitting down to a festive and abundant meal, Pope Francis asked that they be mindful of “all those, especially children, who go hungry while huge amounts of food daily go to waste, and resources are being spent on weapons.”

Russia’s war on Ukraine, a major supplier of grain for the world, is putting whole nations at risk of famine, he said, condemning the use of food as a weapon of war.

Unfortunately, he said, just like 2,000 years ago, “Jesus, the true light, comes into a world sick with indifference — a terrible sickness — a world that does not welcome him and indeed rejects him, as it does with many foreigners, or ignores him, as we all too often do with the poor.”

Pope Francis prayed that this Christmas “may we not forget the many displaced persons and refugees who knock at our door in search of some comfort, warmth and food. Let us not forget the marginalized, those living alone, the orphans and the elderly who risk being set aside, and prisoners, whom we regard solely for the mistakes they have made and not as our fellow men and women.”