ROME — Although Pope Francis at times can come off almost as an angry Old Testament prophet in his critique of injustices and abuses of power, he rang in the New Year instead by extolling all the good in today’s world, referring to it as part of an often unseen, and under-appreciated, “ocean of mercy.”
In an almost poetic turn of phrase, he insisted that an “ocean of mercy” stands in contrast to the “torrent of misery, swollen by sin,” evident from scanning daily headlines.
Francis didn’t take his eyes off the realities of the world, acknowledging during his noontime Angelus address on Friday that “we all know a New Year doesn’t change everything, and that many problems from yesterday will still be there tomorrow.”
Although Christians believe in a loving God, Francis warned, God does not use a “magic wand” to simply make problems disappear.
Francis also couldn’t mistake the fact that crowds at many of his holiday events were notably smaller this year, with Vatican officials reporting a 30 percent drop in the month of December with respect to 2014 — a trend clearly related to security fears surrounding major public gatherings across Europe following the November terrorist attacks in Paris.
The pontiff acknowledged that such forces can seem overwhelming.
“The fullness of time seems to fade before the countless forms of injustice and violence which daily wound our human family,” he said during a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica honoring Mary as the Mother of God.
“Sometimes we ask ourselves how it is possible that human injustice persists unabated, and that the arrogance of the powerful continues to demean the weak, relegating them to the most squalid outskirts of our world,” he said.
The apparent case for despair, he suggested, is where an “ocean of mercy” enters the picture.
“All of us are called to immerse ourselves in this ocean, to let ourselves be reborn, to overcome the indifference which blocks solidarity, and to leave behind the false neutrality which prevents sharing,” Francis said.
His insistence on accenting the positive was expressed most strongly in a session on New Year’s Eve with young people from Pueri Cantores, a group that brings together members of Catholic choirs from around the world. The 6,000 young international choir members sang for the pontiff on Thursday.
During an informal Q&A session, the pontiff was asked if all the evils one sees on the TV news at night will still be going on when today’s youth grow up. In response, he argued that while there are indeed many tragedies in the world, there’s also an under-appreciated reservoir of good.
“There are many good things in the world, and I ask myself: why aren’t these things publicized?” the pope asked aloud. “It seems like people like to see and hear bad news more.”
“Think about Africa,” Francis said. “There are many bad things, many wars, but there are also missionaries, priests, sisters, who often have spent their entire lives there preaching the Gospel, in poverty.”
“There are many holy families, many parents who educate their children well,” he said, asking why such families aren’t given more prominence in the media.
“If you want to get ratings, either as a journalist, or a TV person, or whatever you do, you show only ugly things,” he said. “People seem to get annoyed with the good news … or maybe they don’t know how to present good news well.”
The pope urged his young listeners to never forget that “there are ugly things in the world, and this is the battle of the Devil against God. But there are also many holy things, great things that are the work of God.”
“There are hidden saints,” he said.
(In a lighter moment, the pope told the young choristers that he doesn’t sing very often himself because “it would seem like a donkey.”)
Beyond honoring Mary, New Year’s Day is also designated by the Catholic Church as the World Day of Peace, an observance introduced by Pope Paul VI in 1967, who chose the beginning of the civil year in an effort make the day universal.
In his Angelus remarks, Francis argued that peace must be “conquered,” not just on the geopolitical level but also the personal.
“It implies a true struggle, a spiritual kind of combat that takes place in our heart,” he said. “The enemy of peace isn’t just war, but also indifference that makes us think only of ourselves and creates barriers, suspicion, fear, and closure.”
Each year, the pontiff issues a longer written message for World Peace Day, the text for which is generally released in advance. This year the Vatican published Francis’ message on Dec. 15, in which the pontiff expressed hope for compassion, solidarity, and mercy to triumph over a “globalization of indifference,” both to God and to those most in need.
As an alternative he once again urged mercy, the theme of the special jubilee year he launched Dec. 8.
“Mercy is the heart of God,” Francis wrote. “It must also be the heart of the members of the one great family of his children: a heart which beats all the more strongly wherever human dignity — as a reflection of the face of God in his creatures — is in play.”
In the message, Francis staked out positions on various policy issues, calling for a global abolition of the death penalty, debt relief for the world’s most impoverished nations, and stronger environmental protections.
“Indifference to the natural environment, by countenancing deforestation, pollution, and natural catastrophes which uproot entire communities from their ecosystem and create profound insecurity, ends up creating new forms of poverty and new situations of injustice, often with dire consequences for security and peace,” he wrote.
The pontiff warned that injustices breed more violence.
“When people witness the denial of their elementary rights, such as the right to food, water, health care, or employment, they are tempted to obtain them by force,” he said. He called for “concrete gestures” for people denied access to “labor, land, and lodging.”
Francis has made a point of visiting prisoners both in Rome and on his foreign trips, and in his message he urged prison reform, including the possibility of alternatives to incarceration and better treatment of people awaiting trial.
On Friday afternoon, Francis was scheduled to go across town to Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major to open a holy door for the special jubilee Year of Mercy he decreed for 2016. It marks the last of the four major papal basilicas in Rome to have its holy door opened by the pontiff.
The Vatican generally considers the holiday period to extend until Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, when Francis will celebrate another Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
After that, Francis has a busy January ahead, featuring his annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican on Jan. 11, generally considered the pope’s most important foreign policy speech of the year.
On Jan. 17, Francis will become the third pontiff to visit Rome’s synagogue and meet with the city’s Jewish community, following a landmark visit by St. John Paul II in 1986 and another by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.