ROME — As a technical matter, the Catholic Church doesn’t really celebrate New Year’s Day, since liturgically the new year actually began in late November with the first Sunday of Advent. Instead, Jan. 1 is the great solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, offering a natural invitation to reflect on motherhood.
Pope Francis seized the moment on Sunday, delivering a paean to moms everywhere that seemed only missing a reference to apple pie to be complete.
“Mothers are the strongest antidote to our individualistic and egotistic tendencies, to our lack of openness and our indifference,” the pope said. “A society without mothers would not only be a cold society, but a society that has lost its heart, lost the ‘flavor of family’.”
“A society without mothers would be a merciless society, one that has room only for calculation and speculation. Because mothers, even at the worst times, are capable of testifying to tenderness, unconditional self-sacrifice and the strength of hope,” he said.
Francis spoke in emotional terms of what he’s taken away over the years from watching mothers in often heart-breaking circumstances.
“I have learned much from those mothers whose children are in prison, or lying in hospital beds, or in bondage to drugs, yet, come cold or heat, rain or drought, don’t give up and never stop fighting for what is best for them,” he said.
“Or those mothers who in refugee camps, or even the midst of war, unfailingly embrace and support their children’s sufferings. Mothers who literally give their lives so that none of their children will perish.
“Where there is a mother, there is unity, there is belonging, belonging as children,” the pontiff said.
Mothers, the pope argued, protect us from feeling like orphans, cut off from any real commitment to anyone else, which he described as a serious spiritual cancer.
“This sense of being orphaned lodges in a narcissistic heart capable of looking only to itself and its own interests,” he said. “This attitude of spiritual orphanhood is a cancer that silently eats away at and debases the soul.
“We become all the more debased, inasmuch as nobody belongs to us and we belong to no one,” Francis said. “I debase the earth because it does not belong to me; I debase others because they do not belong to me; I debase God because I do not belong to him, and in the end we debase our very selves, since we forget who we are and the divine ‘family name’ we bear.
“The lack of physical, and not virtual, contact is cauterizing our hearts,” the pope said, citing his own encyclical letter on the environment Laudato Si’.
Becoming spiritual orphans, he said, is “making us lose the capacity for tenderness and wonder, for pity and compassion. [It] makes us forget what it means to be children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, friends and believers. It makes us forget the importance of playing, of singing, of a smile, of rest, of gratitude.”
Therein, he said, lies the magic of mom.
“To celebrate the feast of the Holy Mother of God reminds us that we are not interchangeable items of merchandise or information processors. We are children, we are family, we are God’s People,” the pope said.
Francis spoke on Sunday morning in St. Peter’s Basilica, celebrating the annual Mass to mark the Marian feast, extolling her as the patron and role model for mothers in every age.
“She was able to watch over the beginnings of the first Christian community, and in this way she learned to be the mother of a multitude,” he said.
“She drew near to the most diverse situations in order to sow hope. She accompanied the crosses borne in the silence of her children’s hearts. How many devotions, shrines and chapels in the most far-off places, how many pictures in our homes, remind us of this great truth?”
Mary, the pontiff said, is the one who nurtured and preserved the “revolution of tenderness” launched by Christ.
“Mary gave us a mother’s warmth, the warmth that shelters us amid troubles, the maternal warmth that keeps anything or anyone from extinguishing in the heart of the Church the revolution of tenderness inaugurated by her Son,” he said.
As he has each year on this feast, Francis closed by inviting the congregation to repeat a chant associated with the fifth century Council of Ephesus, which proclaimed Mary the theotokos, or “birth giver of God.”
“Holy Mother of God, Holy Mother of God, Holy Mother of God,” the pope had the crowd repeat.
In addition to the Marian significance of Jan.1, the day is also observed by the Vatican as the World Day of Peace. It was established by Pope Paul VI in 1967, making this the 50th such World Day.
Released on Dec. 8, the title of Pope Francis’s 2500-word message for this year is “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace.”
In it, Francis urges the cultivation of a nonviolent response to situations of conflict.
“When victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promoters of nonviolent peacemaking,” the pontiff wrote. “In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms.
“Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world,” Francis said.
For Christians, he argued, a commitment to nonviolence is rooted in the example of Christ.
“When he stopped her accusers from stoning the woman caught in adultery, and when, on the night before he died, he told Peter to put away his sword, Jesus marked out the path of nonviolence,” the pope wrote.
“He walked that path to the very end, to the cross, whereby he became our peace and put an end to hostility.”
Next Friday, Pope Francis will lead a Mass to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, traditionally seen by the Vatican as closing the holiday season. On Sunday he’ll celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, an occasion when the pontiff typically baptizes newborn children of Vatican employees.