• Pope celebrates birthday with homeless and fav team

Pope celebrates birthday with homeless and fav team

Well-wishers praise Francis' commitment to 'joy of the Gospel'

(By Sandra Cordon) (ANSA) - Vatican City, December 17 - Pope Francis marked his 77th birthday on Tuesday by celebrating Mass, breakfasting with the homeless, and enjoying a surprise visit from delegates of his favourite Argentine soccer team. Well-wishers from around the world sent birthday greetings and praised the work that Francis has accomplished since he was elected pontiff in March. There was also a very special gift for Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires who is well known to be a committed soccer fan intensely loyal to his favourite team, Argentina's San Lorenzo de Almagro. A delegation of six players and managers from San Lorenzo, which on Sunday won the Argentine league title, were expected to arrive Tuesday in Rome to present the pope with their recent league championship trophy. The team's 0-0 draw at Velez Sarsfield enabled the Buenos Aires team to seal the Inicial championship and has been described as an early birthday present for Francis, who reportedly said "what joy!" when he heard news of the win. Meanwhile, Italy's Arab community said the pope has set an example for other religious leaders to see faith as a uniting, not dividing, factor. Rather than just talk, the pope actually puts his words into action, said the Community of the Arab World in Italy. "We hope Pope Francis's birthday is celebrated every day...for the empty space that is being filled up by his efforts to give many the faith to look at religion in a new way, not as a hot topic that divides people," said Foad Aodi, president of the organization. Italian bishops praised the pope's work in "renewing the commitment to spread the joy of the Gospel". Francis often dispenses "words of life and mercy that open paths and awaken hope," the Italian bishops' conference (CEI) said in a telegram sent to the pope. The pontiff has often talked of hope, faith and of renewing the Church to become more responsive to the poor and disenfranchised. Francis backed up his words with action on his birthday by having breakfast after early morning Mass with four homeless men invited into St. Martha's House, the guesthouse where Francis lives inside the Vatican. During his homily, which focused on geneology, the pope reminded the faithful that God was always with them. "God never leaves us alone, but always walks with us," said Francis, according to Vatican Radio. Earlier, the pope also received a giant birthday card with a favourite depiction of Mary, and young patients who are served by the Vatican's pediatric pharmacy sang Happy Birthday to the Holy Father. As well, staff at the Vatican Television Center created a short birthday video with highlights from the most meaningful images captured in Francis's first nine months in the papacy, including a historic visit to the refugee centre at Lampedusa. The southern Italian island has been overwhelmed by waves of desperate refugees who often risk, and lose, their lives fleeing the Middle East and North Africa for better lives in Europe. The pope's birthday marks the beginning of a hectic Christmas holiday season, according to his schedule released Tuesday by the Vatican. Among his engagements, the pope will visit patients at Rome's Bambino Gesù children's hospital on Saturday before one of the highlights of the season, Christmas Eve Mass in the Papal Chapel of St. Peter's Basilica - the first time for Francis as pope. At noon on Christmas Day, Francis will deliver his Christmas message as well as the special "Urbi et Orbi," (to the city and world) blessing given by the pope on such significant occasions as Easter and Christmas. On New Year's Eve is the celebration of the first Vespers and the traditional signing of the Te Deum for the feast of the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. On the morning of January 1, Francis will celebrate Mass and speak on the theme of the Church's 47th annual World Day of Peace, "Fraternity: the foundation and path for peace". The cycle of the Christmas liturgies will conclude on January 6 with Mass celebrating the feast of the Epiphany, marking the baptism of Jesus, as well as a baptism of newborns in the Sistine Chapel.