ROME – A pope’s weekly General Audiences rarely make headlines, because they’re not generally full of hard-hitting political commentary or occasions to make dramatic policy announcements.
On the other hand, they are a useful x-ray of what may be on a given pope’s mind at the moment, because the teaching delivered is generally personally prepared by the pontiff and reflects the fruit of his own thought and prayer.
By that standard, it seems clear that at the close of a tumultuous year full of surprises, not all of them pleasant either in the wider world or inside the Catholic Church, what’s on Pope Francis’s mind right now is the virtue of hope.
What also appears to be on his mind is the desire for some holiday fun, reflected in the (quite literally) circus-like atmosphere of Wednesday’s raucous General Audience at the Vatican, the last of 2016.
On Wednesday, Francis delivered what amounted to an ode to hope, basing it on the biblical story of God’s promise to Abraham that he would indeed have a son despite his advanced age and the sterility of his wife Sarah.
“Abraham believed, his faith opened up hope in something that appeared irrational,” the pope said. “Hope is the capacity to go beyond human reason, beyond the wisdom and prudence of the world, beyond what’s normally considered good sense in order to believe in the impossible.”
“Hope opens new horizons, renders us capable of dreaming that which doesn’t even seem imaginable,” the pope said. “Hope allows us to walk in light, surrounded by the darkness of an uncertain future.”
Quoting St. Paul, Francis said that Abraham “hoped against every hope,” saying that’s a “hard” and “tough” attitude: “There’s no hope here, but I’ll hope anyway,” Francis said, paraphrasing Abraham’s position.
“How beautiful is the virtue of hope,” the pope said. “It gives us incredible strength.”
Francis then summarized the arduous journey Abraham was forced to make, and the long delays between God’s issuing his promise of a son and actually delivering on it. He noted that the Bible frequently shows Abraham begging God to satisfy his promise, even berating God for failing to do so, but never abandoning hope.
“We need to learn from that,” Francis said. “It’s okay to complain to God. It’s actually a form of prayer … I say that to people in the confessional, go ahead, complain, God is a father, he’ll understand.”
The story of Abraham, Francis said, is a reminder that hope is not a magic wand, something that places one beyond any form of “doubt and perplexity.”
Hope, the pontiff said, also means “not being afraid to see reality for what it is, accepting its contradictions.
“Sometimes hope takes us into darkness,” Francis said, “but even so, it’s there.”
A visibly enthused Francis entered the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall at the beginning of the audience and spent at least 15 minutes making his way down the center aisle to the stage, greeting dozens of the roughly 7,000 people on hand.
The festive atmosphere was made complete toward the end of the audience as a jazz band strode onto the stage accompanied by several circus performers, including jugglers, spin dancers, clowns performing balloon acts, and dancers balancing large bowls on their heads. A magician even got the pontiff to lend him a hand in levitating a small table, followed by gymnasts and contortionists adopting various unlikely poses.
At one stage, a clown presented Pope Francis with a green and red balloon in the form of a Cross, setting off thunderous applause. At another, a parrot was perched on the pope’s outstretched hand, followed by something you definitely don’t see every day, especially at the Vatican: A guy in a pirate’s outfit doing some parrot-juggling.
The performers were part of a Golden Circus Festival currently underway in Rome. The pope thanked them for their efforts, saying “beauty always brings us closer to God.”
As an American footnote, the first person in line to greet Francis at the close of the audience was Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who spent several minutes chatting amiably with the pontiff.
On Saturday, Pope Francis will preside over a New Year’s Eve vespers service. The liturgy will begin at 5 pm Rome time. Following Vespers, the Blessed Sacrament will be exposed on the altar for a period of adoration, and the traditional hymn Te Deum will be sung in thanksgiving at the close of the year. The celebration will conclude with a benediction of the Most Holy Sacrament.
After the ceremonies within St. Peter’s, Pope Francis will visit the crèche set up outside the Basilica in St. Peter’s Square, where he is expected to spend some time in silent prayer.
On Sunday, he’ll lead a Mass marking what the Catholic Church observes as the feast of Mary the Mother of God, as well as the World Day of Peace. He’ll also deliver a noontime Angelus address.