ROME – Bringing the Vatican’s holiday season to a close on Thursday with a Mass for the feast of the Epiphany, Pope Francis delivered a strong homily on a “holy longing for God” as the answer to “prophets of doom” who think “nothing can change” and stubbornly cling to “the usual fare.”
Epiphany celebrates the New Testament story of the Three Wise Men, or Magi, who went in search of the infant Jesus. The pontiff said they were guided by a positive “inner restlessness,” which left them “open to something new.”
“A holy longing for God is the memory of faith, which rebels before all prophets of doom,” the pontiff said.
The phrase “prophets of doom” has a long history in papal rhetoric, including a famous address by St. Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962. In the decades since, it’s generally become used in Catholic parlance to characterize resistance to proposals for reform.
Francis said Thursday that “holy longing” draws people out of that reaction.
(Interestingly, the Italian word used by the pope translated as “longing” in English was actually “nostalgia,” but the pontiff certainly was not lauding an attitude of nostalgia for the past, insisting that faith “has its roots in the past but doesn’t stop there.”)
“Longing for God draws us out of our iron-clad isolation, which makes us think that nothing can change,” the pope said. “Longing for God shatters our dreary routines and impels us to make the changes we want and need.”
Though Francis was speaking in a spiritual key, it was hard for many observers on Thursday not to hear echoes of some of the turbulence Francis faced during the past year, with some critics suggesting he’s introducing debatable or doctrinally unsound changes in Catholic life himself, notably with regard to the idea of opening Communion to some divorced and civilly remarried believers.
The pontiff made no reference to those debates on Thursday, but criticized a broad attitude of resistance to change.
Referring to the story of the encounter between the Magi and King Herod, who ruled Israel at the time, Francis said Herod was alarmed and “bewildered” by their quest for a newborn king.
“It is the bewilderment which, when faced with the newness that revolutionizes history, closes in on itself and its own achievements, its knowledge, its successes,” he said.
It is, Francis said, “the bewilderment lodged in the hearts of those who want to control everything and everyone … the bewilderment of those immersed in the culture of winning at any cost, in that culture where there is only room for ‘winners,’ whatever the price.”
The pope also said Herod embodied “a bewilderment born of fear and foreboding before anything that challenges us, calls into question our certainties and our truths, our ways of clinging to the world and this life.”
The birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Francis said, challenged such fear and defensiveness.
Christ’s example, he said, calls believers “to realize that in God’s eyes there is always room for those who are wounded, weary, mistreated and abandoned. That his strength and his power are called mercy.”
“For some of us,” Francis lamented, “how far Jerusalem is from Bethlehem!”
Pointedly, Francis said that not only was Herod incapable of responding to that challenge and worshiping a God of freedom, so too were the priests in the Jerusalem temple.
“Although they had great knowledge, and knew the prophecies, they were not ready to make the journey or to change their ways,” he said.
In contrast, he said, the Magi “were tired of the usual fare.”
“They were all too familiar with, and weary of, the Herods of their own day,” he said. “But there, in Bethlehem, was a promise of newness, of gratuitousness. There something new was taking place. The Magi were able to worship, because they had the courage to set out.”
The Magi, the pope said, did not allow their hearts to be “anesthetized.”
At the close of the Mass, Francis delivered his traditional noontime Angelus address from the window of the papal apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square, to a crowd estimated by the Vatican Gendarmes at roughly 35,000 people.
Once again, the pope called on believers to reject “superficial and mundane chatter, which slows down our pace; the crippling selfishness of egoism; [and] the ditches of pessimism, which trap hope.”
Afterwards he planned to share a sandwich and a drink with roughly 300 poor and homeless persons and refugees on hand for the event.
Although Epiphany is typically regarded as the conclusion of the holiday season at the Vatican, it’s only the beginning of a busy stretch for Francis.
On Monday, the pontiff will deliver his annual address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, usually seen as an important moment to lay out his political and diplomatic agenda for the coming year.
On Sunday, Jan. 8, Francis will preside over a Mass for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, an occasion on which the pope typically baptizes the newborn children of Vatican employees. The following Saturday, he’s also planning to baptize eight children born to victims of the earthquakes that struck central Italy in 2016, including the small town of Amatrice, which was essentially wiped out in August.
On Jan. 15, Francis will resume the cycle of visits to Roman parishes that was suspended during his jubilee Year of Mercy, spending the afternoon on the eastern outskirts of Rome at the parish of Santa Maria a Setteville in a neighborhood called Guidonia.