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Pope Francis blesses Mariam Yahya Ibrahim of Sudan during a private meeting at the Vatican July 24, 2014. REUTERS/OSSERVATORE ROMANO


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Pope Francis

Vatican TV

BOSTON —Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is inviting Pope Francis to Boston during the pope’s first trip to the United States, tentatively planned for 2015.

Walsh has asked Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley to hand-deliver a letter this week while he is in Rome, the Boston Globe reported.

“I think people in Boston would be very excited about the pope coming,” Walsh said in an interview with the Globe. “I think it would also be good for the city.”

O’Malley has previously expressed doubt about the likelihood of a papal visit to Boston.

“The city of Boston has always been known as a city of profound faith: faith that its diversity makes it strong; faith in doing the right and appropriate thing for its poor; and faith in the power of truth and justice,” the mayor wrote in his letter to the pope.

Pope John Paul II visited Boston in 1979.

Francesco Arena / EPA file

Crime scene investigators working at a burnt car where three burnt bodies were found in Cassano allo Ionio, Calabria, Italy on Jan. 19. According to reports, a three-year-old boy was killed in the mafia hit.

By Claudio Lavanga, Correspondent, NBC News

ROME – “Don’t kill women and children” used to be part of the mafia code of honor.

That’s why the recent shooting death of a 3-year-old, whose body was burned virtually beyond recognition, has shocked this nation long used to gruesome mob killings.

“Women and children used to be off limits,” said Patrizia Venturino, a local journalist who reports on mob hits. “But it’s all changed now. Women often become bosses if their husbands go to jail or are killed. And children, well, if they are a witness to a crime, they become a liability.”

On Jan. 19, the charred remains of toddler Nicola “Coco” Campolongo were found in a torched car near a farmhouse in the southern region of Calabria, which is a base for the ‘Ndrangheta, the most powerful and feared of the four Italian mafias. His body was found alongside the remains of his grandfather Giuseppe Iannicelli, and 27-year old Ibtissam Touss, who the police identified as Iannicelli’s partner.

The killing of Campolongo sparked nation-wide outrage. Last Sunday Pope Francis called the murder “unprecedented,” asking worshipers to pray for Coco and for the boy’s killer to repent.

Italian authorities believe that Iannicelli, who was serving a drug-related sentence on house arrest and was related to a government witness called Pasquale Perciaccante, drove to an appointment with members of the mafia, possibly taking his young partner and grandson as a protective measure.

But not even the sight of a 3-year-old stopped the hitman, who shot all three point-blank in the head, placed a 50-cent coin on the roof of the vehicle as if to show that their lives were cheap, and set fire to it.

Tony Gentile / Reuters file

Anti-Mafia police wearing masks to hide their identity, escort top Mafia fugitive Giovani Brusca on May 21, 1996 as he leaves Palermo’s police headquarters to be taken to a maximum security prison.

“I am upset that a child was brutally murdered,” Venturino said. “But I am even more outraged at a grandfather who brings his grandson as a sort of shield against the mob, in the hope they will have pity on him.”

In the last decade the ‘Ndrangheta has won a reputation as Italy’s most violent mafia. Tales of how it feeds enemies to starving pigs have recently made the headlines.  But the toddler’s killing was a previously unimaginable new low.

While Campolongo is the youngest known victim of the Italian mafias, he is not the first child to have been violently executed by the mob. In 1993 Giuseppe di Matteo, the 11-year-old son of a government witness, was kidnapped by Giovanni Brusca, a member of the Sicilian Mafia known as either “The Swine” or the “People-Slayer” for his violence.

The boy was held and tortured for 26 long months, and finally strangled and later dissolved in a barrel of acid to prevent his family from giving him a proper burial.

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Rev. Fabian Baez is parish priest in Francis’ hometown of Buenos Aires

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis broke with papal protocol once again Wednesday, inviting an old friend for a spin in his panoramic white car during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

The Rev. Fabian Baez, a parish priest in Francis’ hometown of Buenos Aires, didn’t have a VIP ticket granting him a seat close to the altar or a spot where the pope would chat with well-wishers. But as soon as Francis saw Baez in the crowd of several thousand people, the pope signaled for Vatican gendarmes to help Baez jump the barricade.

Francis then invited Baez to hop aboard his car, and the parish priest accompanied Francis through the square as the pope waved to well-wishers and kissed babies.

Baez said he was shocked by Francis’ invitation, telling reporters afterward: “I said to myself ‘What am I doing here? Mamma mia!'”

“The pope laughed and said ‘Come, sit down, sit down!’ And he continued to greet the people and kiss babies. I was very moved.”

Baez said the two had known each other since the 1990s; the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio was archbishop of the Argentine capital before being named pope.

Francis was in particularly good spirits at Wednesday’s audience, entertained by a circus troupe and greeted by Italy’s Sampdoria soccer team, who presented the soccer-mad pope with yet another jersey.

Francis has added a bit of spontaneity to the Vatican’s staid ways. He lives in the Vatican hotel, not the Apostolic Palace. He eschewed the armored popemobile for a simple Fiat during his trip to Brazil. And when he has left the Vatican, he has done so with a minimal security detail and no fancy motorcade.

Gregorio Borgia / AP

Pope Francis kisses a statue of baby Jesus as he celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, on Dec. 24.

By Elisha Fieldstadt, NBC News

The faithful flocked to St. Peter’s Basilica for Pope Francis’ first Christmas Eve midnight Mass, in which the pontiff once again preached the importance of acceptance and humility, qualities he has demonstrated continually in his first nine months as head of the Catholic Church.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” Francis began, quoting from Isaiah, a book of the Bible that includes prophesies foretelling the birth of Jesus.

Pope Francis offered a traditional lesson of light and love during his first Christmas Eve midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. NBC’s Martin Fletcher reports.

Jesus brought light and grace to the world, and that grace “made salvation possible for the whole human race,” Francis said, choosing to highlight a scripture from the biblical book of Titus.

While Jesus embodied light and love, Francis said, those who hate walk in “darkness.”

Francis, who celebrated the Mass with more than 300 cardinals, bishops and priests, urged people not to be afraid to reach out to God – echoing the words of the biblical angel delivering news of Jesus’ birth.

“Do not be afraid! Our Father is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness. He is our peace,” he said.

Francis has sought to change the image of the Catholic Church as a judgmental, lavish, inflexible institution since his election in March.

Of gay priests, he has asked, “who am I to judge?” He has washed the feet of prisoners, refused to move into the papal palace and celebrated his recent birthday breakfast with three homeless men. On Monday, he made a Christmas visit to Pope Emeritus Benedict and asked him to pray for him.

“(He) is bringing a new era into the Church, a Church that is focusing much more on the poor and that is more austere, more lively, a Church that cares about everyone in the world,” said Dolores Di Benedetto, who travelled from the pope’s homeland, Argentina to hear him speak.

“I thought it would be very nice to hear the words of this pope close up and to see how the people are overwhelmed by him,” said Giacchino Sabello, one of more than 10,000 people who packed St. Peter’s Basilica or stood outside watching the ceremony on mega-screens.

In Christmas Eve’s Mass, Francis reiterated the importance of reaching out to the downtrodden, using the shepherds who were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth as an example. “They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast,” he said.

“We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake. You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable,” said Francis in thanks to God and also a clear indication of the humility he encourages his flock to emulate.

Ettore Ferrari / EPA

Pope Francis leads the midnight Christmas Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican late on Dec. 24.

In his address to Vatican administrators on Saturday, Francis said holiness was a practice of “deep humility and fraternal charity in our relationships with our fellow workers,” as he urged the cardinals, bishops and priests to avoid gossip.

Before the Mass, Francis further inspired meekness, when he personally placed a baby Jesus doll in a replica of a manger, a custom usually performed by an aid.

The 2 1/2-hour Mass was the first of many services Francis will lead during the holidays. On Christmas Day, he will deliver a “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) message from the basilica’s balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

He will also hold mass on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and another on Jan. 6, for the feast of the Epiphany or “Three Kings’ Day,” celebrating the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus.

Reuters contributed to this report.