Gregorio Borgia, AP
Pope Francis waves to faithful during the Angelus noon prayer in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018.

The pope said something radical the other day. Christmas, he said, should not just be about presents and mass consumerism.

Maybe that doesn’t sounds so terribly radical. Your grandparents might have said something similar long ago. You might even hear such a thing in idle talk today. But look around. Judging by what the 21st century has to offer — with its gadgets, cheap fashions and virtual-reality thrills — it seems radical, indeed.

To read some of the comments people left on a story about this in the Daily Mail, Pope Francis might as well have grabbed all the brightly wrapped toys in Whoville and hidden them in an icy cave. Except, the world isn’t filled with innocent Whos who don’t really value presents because they can readily appreciate the little things in life.

Some were quick to refer to the holiday’s pagan roots as a way to belittle the whole Christian notion. Some criticized the Catholic Church’s own wealth or noted that Dec. 25 wasn’t really Jesus’ birthday, anyway. Others said they simply didn’t care what the pope or any other religious leader said.

People are like that. If they can’t comfortably attack an argument head on, they will fire wildly at easier targets they think look similar.

But his speech was something we needed to hear.

I’m not going to pretend there aren’t presents under my family tree, nor will I discount the joy that comes in opening those gifts. The season offers an array of comforts and traditions that can, in various ways, re-emphasize important family ties and a shared heritage.

But the pope’s warning about the “uproar of consumerism” this time of year is hard to counter. Perhaps your email inbox has felt like an uproar of advertisements in December about this or that thing you would like, based on your previous search history. Perhaps the credit cards in your wallet are feeling a little warm due to constant use.

The website finance.yahoo.com cited a Goldman Sachs survey that found 48 percent of Americans will go into debt to buy presents this year. A Lending Tree debt report said the nation’s total combined credit card debt is expected to grow by 5 percent this holiday season, to somewhere around $1.06 trillion in revolving debt.

Roar, indeed. I could make some comment about how all this decking of the halls is going to land us in the poor house when the day of reckoning comes, as it sort of did 10 years ago. And yet, that wasn’t the pope’s point, at all.

"Please, let us not make Christmas worldly,” he said, according to the Catholic News Service. “Let us not put aside the one being celebrated.” This, he said, is what happened at Jesus’ birth, when "his own people did not accept him."

It’s easy to test the validity of an argument if you can measure where it ultimately leads. A world that values consumerism above all may have robust economies, for a while, where trade and innovation bring prosperity to many, but its reward is a never-ending thirst for more things as old things wear out or go out of style.

Instead, Pope Francis said, "It will be Christmas if, like Joseph, we make room for silence; if, like Mary, we tell God, 'Here I am'; if, like Jesus, we are close to those who are alone; if, like the shepherds, we leave our sheepfolds in order to be with Jesus."

The ultimate end of that kind of behavior would be a world in which many of today’s arguments and divisions become lost in service, and where people take time to solemnly ponder the divinity in themselves and others.

2 comments on this story

Basic human behavior doesn’t change. I’m guessing many who lived around Bethlehem about 2018 years ago were so self-absorbed they couldn’t comprehend what was happening — regardless of a star, angels and heavenly choirs.

The danger in all the shiny, costly things that fill this season is that they can distract us from the things that count, as well, and from the people who need our attention more than our presents.

Shiny things tend to roar year-round, which is why Christmas should not be confined to just one day.

And yet Pope Francis was right. We should at least get that one day right.