VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis assured the faithful on Christmas Eve that God loves everyone — “even the worst of us” — as he celebrated the joyous birth of Christ after a less-than-joyful year of scandals and opposition.
With a choir singing the classic Christmas hymn "The First Noel," Francis processed down the center aisle of St. Peter's Basilica late Tuesday and unveiled a statue of the newborn Jesus lying in a nativity scene at the foot of the altar.
Francis said the birth of Jesus, which Christians commemorate on Christmas Day, was a reminder of God's unconditional love for everyone, “even the worst of us.”
"God does not love you because you think and act the right way," he said. "You may have mistaken ideas, you may have made a complete mess of things, but the Lord continues to love you."
At the same time though, he called for the faithful to allow themselves to be transformed by Jesus' "crazy love" and to stop trying to change others.
"May we not wait for our neighbors to be good before we do good to them, for the church to be perfect before we love her, for others to respect us before we serve them. Let us begin with ourselves," he said.
Francis has frequently emphasized his call for "personal conversion" in his reform-minded papacy, believing that true reform cannot be imposed from on high, but discerned from within. He has similarly denounced the "holier-than-thou" attitude of doctrinal and legal purists, who have chafed at his progressive openings to gays, divorcees and people on the margins.
Those critics have seized on the sexual abuse and financial scandals that have buffeted the papacy of the 83-year-old Jesuit pope.
The scandals are likely to follow Francis into 2020, with developments in a corruption investigation involving hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to the Holy See and the release of a report on what the Vatican knew about ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked for sexually abusing adults and minors,
Francis' late-night Mass kicks off a busy few days for the pope, including a Christmas Day speech, noontime prayers, a New Year's Eve vigil and a Jan. 1 Mass.