ROME – Pope Francis ended 2016 with a reflection that could be read as a statement on the tumult of the year, one in which he came under fire in some quarters for his line on divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, arguing that Christians should avoid being “narrow-minded, or prisoners of an all-or-nothing attitude that would force others to conform to our own ideas.”
Meditating on the image of a God who became a helpless infant in a manger in order to redeem the world, the pontiff said God’s logic “is not centered on privilege, exemptions or favors, but one of encounter and closeness.”
“The manger invites us to break with the logic of exceptions for some and exclusion for others,” he said. “God himself comes to shatter the chains of privilege that always cause exclusion, in order to introduce the caress of compassion that brings inclusion, that makes the dignity of each person shine forth, the dignity for which he or she was created.”
Francis spoke Saturday evening during a vespers service in St. Peter’s Basilica marking the end of the year, and also the vigil of the feast of Mary the Mother of God on Jan. 1.
Although 2016 was a year marked by ferment in various corners of the world, including the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the rejection of an historic peace deal in Colombia, and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, in Catholic terms the biggest earthquake of the last 12 months was Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, drawing conclusions from two Synods of Bishops on the family.
Though the document is a wide-ranging treatment of marriage and family life, its most controversial provision is a cautious opening to allowing some Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried to return to Communion after a process of discernment with a priest or a bishop.
While embraced by some Catholics, that position has been derided by others as a break with the Church’s traditional discipline and teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
Pope Francis never mentioned the controversy on Saturday, but the thrust of his year-end meditation was a call for mercy and inclusion.
“We know that we are tempted in various ways to adopt the logic of privilege that separates, excludes and closes us off, while separating, excluding and closing off the dreams and lives of so many of our brothers and sisters,” he said in his homily.
Saying that the Christ child brings enlightenment, Francis said, “We need this light, which helps us learn from our mistakes and failed attempts in order to improve and surpass ourselves; this light born of the humble and courageous awareness of those who find the strength, time and time again, to rise up and start anew.”
When God became a human being in the form of a child, Francis said, he wanted to make himself close to all those who find themselves on the margins.
“Far from remaining an idea or an abstract essence, he wanted to be close to all those who felt lost, demeaned, hurt, discouraged, inconsolable and frightened,” he said. “Close to all those who in their bodies carry the burden of separation and loneliness, so that sin, shame, hurt, despair and exclusion would not have the final word in the lives of his sons and daughters.”
Francis extolled not a “sterile nostalgia or empty recollection of an idealized and disembodied past,” but rather “a living memory, one that helps to generate personal and communal creativity because we know that God is with us.”
If not directly a commentary on the Amoris debate, the pope’s remarks to end 2016 nevertheless seemed a summary of his overall pastoral philosophy.
Francis also focused on youth Saturday night, saying, “We cannot speak of the future without … accepting the responsibility we have for our young.”
Rather than saying adults have a responsibility for the young, the pope argued, it’s more accurate to say they have a debt to younger generations.
“To speak of a year’s end is to feel the need to reflect on how concerned we are about the place of young people in our society,” Francis said.
“We have condemned our young people to have no place in society, because we have slowly pushed them to the margins of public life, forcing them to migrate or to beg for jobs that no longer exist or fail to promise them a future,” he said.
“We have preferred speculation over dignified and genuine work that can allow young people to take active part in the life of society. We expect and demand that they be a leaven for the future, but we discriminate against them and ‘condemn’ them to knock on doors that for the most part remain closed.”
“If we wish to secure a future worthy of them, we should do so by staking it on true inclusion: one that provides work that is worthy, free, creative, participatory and solidary,” the pope said.
Saturday’s vespers service closed with a period of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by singing the traditional hymn Te Deum to thank God at the close of year. Afterwards, Francis was to exit St. Peter’s Basilica to go into the square to see the annual nativity scene, pausing for a few moments of silent prayer before the image of the Christ child.
On Sunday, Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass in the morning to honor Mary, the Mother of God, and later will deliver a noontime Angelus address. Jan. 1 is also marked on the Catholic calendar as the World Day of Peace.
The nativity scene this year is a gift of the island nation of Malta, regarded in percentage terms as among the most Catholic nations in the world.