Pope's message for Radio 4 slot has themes of salvation and hope, with no mention of Vatican scandal or religious freedom
Pope Benedict XVI has recalled "with great fondness" his four-day visit to Britain last September during his Christmas Eve message on the BBC Radio 4 religious slot Thought for the Day.
In a warm and upbeat address, aimed primarily the English-speaking world, the unprecedented broadcast contains traditional Christian themes of salvation, freedom, human frailty and hope, rather than references to the many scandals to have engulfed the Vatican and its leadership this year. Nor does it tackle contentious issues such as religious freedom of Christian minorities.
In what is believed to be his first personally scripted broadcast, recorded in Rome and lasting less than three minutes, the pope said he was "glad to have the opportunity to greet" the British people again and for the chance to "greet listeners everywhere". Speaking of the significance of Christmas, the pontiff said:
"Our thoughts turn back to a moment in history when God's chosen people, the children of Israel, were living in intense expectation. They were waiting for the Messiah that God had promised to send, and they pictured him as a great leader who would rescue them from foreign domination and restore their freedom.
"The child that was born in Bethlehem did indeed bring liberation ... he was to be the Saviour of all people throughout the world and throughout history. And it was not a political liberation that he brought, achieved through military means: rather, Christ destroyed death for ever and restored life by means of his shameful death on the cross.”
In addition, he also gave comfort and consolation for "families, children, the sick and those going through hardship, especially the elderly and those approaching the end of their days".
"Let us give thanks to God for his goodness to us, and let us joyfully proclaim to those around us the good news that God offers us freedom from whatever weighs us down: he gives us hope, he brings us life. I ask Christ, the light of the nations, to dispel whatever darkness there may be in your lives and to grant to every one of you the grace of a peaceful and joyful Christmas."
Speaking before the 7.45am slot, Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, said: "I've got no problem with the message itself, but I think it's an extraordinarily bad choice for the BBC and I think it's actually a slap in the face for these hundreds of thousands of child abuse victims. What we've had with the papal visit and with Thought for the Day is the pope pontificating his views and being totally unaccountable for things that the church has been responsible for."
The broadcast is the first time any pope has written material specifically for a radio or television audience. He joined the ranks of Thought for the Day speakers such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the head of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, and the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
The BBC coup follows years of lobbying from executives who have long considered the Roman Catholic pontiff to be the ultimate contributor for the slot. Among those said to have been instrumental in persuading the Vatican to take part are the veteran Rome correspondent David Willey, BBC world news editor Jon Williams and the corporation's head of radio, religion and ethics, Christine Morgan.
Mark Thompson, BBC director general and a devout Roman Catholic, has also been involved in the negotiations while Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer spoke last February of his desire to have papal participation in the slot, ideally during the September state visit. The recording did not materialise, however, until this month.