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Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass in packed St. Peter's Basilica

Last Updated Dec 24, 2016 7:12 PM EST

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis urged Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus by thinking about the plight of today’s children, bemoaning how some must escape bombs or flee in migrant boats and how others are prevented from being born at all. 

Francis celebrated a somber Christmas Eve Mass in a packed St. Peter’s Basilica, processing to the altar behind cardinals draped in golden vestments as the Sistine Chapel choir sang “Gloria” and the church bells rang out across Rome.

Francis has spent much of the year denouncing the Islamic extremist violence that has driven Christians from Mideast communities that date to the time of Christ. He has also demanded Europe in particular do more to welcome refugees, saying Jesus himself was a migrant who deserved more than being born in a manger. And he has called out the wasteful ways of the wealthy when children and the poor die of hunger every day. 

In his homily, Francis urged his flock to reflect on how children today aren’t always allowed to lie peacefully in a cot, loved by their parents as Jesus was, but rather “suffer the squalid mangers that devour dignity.”

Among the indignities, he said, are “hiding underground to escape bombardment, on the pavements of a large city, at the bottom of a boat overladen with immigrants.”

“Let us allow ourselves to be challenged by the children who are not allowed to be born, by those who cry because no one satiates their hunger, by those who do have not toys in their hands, but rather weapons,” he added.

The Mass late Saturday was the first major event of the Christmas season, followed by Francis’ noon Urbi et Orbi (To the city and the world) blessing on Christmas Day.

In another appeal, Francis called for the faithful to not get caught up in the commercialization of Christmas -- “when we are concerned for gifts but cold toward those who are marginalized.”

Materialism has “taken us hostage this Christmas,” he said. “We have to free ourselves of it!” 

Last week, Francis celebrated his 80th birthday by sharing breakfast with eight homeless people before celebrating Mass with cardinals as greetings flowed in from around the world.   

The pope chatted individually with each of the homeless guests -- four Italians, two Romanians, a Moldovan and a Peruvian -- at the Vatican hotel where he resides, and shared Argentinian cakes with them before heading to Mass, the Vatican said. 

The guests offered the pope a bouquet of sunflowers. They were invited from among those staying around St. Peter’s Square and at nearby showers for the homeless established by the pope’s almsgiver. 

Speaking to the cardinals, Francis contemplated the aging process, telling them, “For some days now, I have had in mind a word that seems ugly: Old age, a thought that frightens.” But then he recalled his words during his first papal greeting in 2013, when he said: “Old age is the thirst for knowledge.” 

He added: “I hope it will be the same for me.”