ROME – New Year’s Day marks two important observances on the Catholic calendar: One is the World Day of Peace, established by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1967, and the other is the great feast of Mary as the Mother of God.
Popes generally release their message for the Day of Peace well in advance, and Francis followed suit this year. For 2018, this son of immigrants himself chose to focus on migrants and refugees, calling for policies of “welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating.”
Managing today’s massive flows of people across borders, either fleeing conflict or seeking opportunity, the pontiff argued, is key to creating a global culture of peace.
Having all that on the record allows a pope in his New Year’s homily, therefore, to place the focus on Mary, which Francis clearly did on Monday. During the morning Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, he told those gathered that “devotion to Mary is not spiritual etiquette, it’s an exigency of Christian life.”
More deeply, Francis appeared to be suggesting it’s not a coincidence that the World Day of Peace and the feast of Mary the Mother of God coincide. In fact, he seemed to say, the spiritual basis of real peace is to be found in Mary herself.
“In her heart, beats the heart of the Church,” Francis said.
The pontiff also underlined the importance of Mary being a woman as a lesson in the importance of tenderness.
“While a man often abstracts, affirms and imposes ideas, a woman, a mother, knows how to “keep,” to put things together in her heart, to give life,” he said.
“If our faith is not to be reduced merely to an idea or a doctrine, all of us need a mother’s heart, one which knows how to keep the tender love of God and to feel the heartbeat of all around us,” Francis said.
As he has throughout the Christmas season, the pope urged people to spend some time in silent contemplation before the Nativity Scene, depicting the birth of Christ in a manger in meager circumstances.
“In front of the crib, we rediscover ourselves as loved, we taste the real sense of life,” he said, calling on listeners to “to begin anew from the crib, from the Mother who holds God in her arms.”
“Looking in silence, we allow Jesus to speak to our heart: his smallness tears down our pride, his poverty disturbs our pomp, and his tenderness moves our hard hearts,” the pope said.
“To cut out a moment of silence with God every day,” Francis said, “is to take care of our soul. It’s to preserve our freedom from the corrosive banality of consumerism and the dizziness of advertising, from the spread of empty words and from the overwhelming waves of chatter and noise.”
In a special way, Francis said, contemplating the role of Mary in the Nativity Scene provides the spiritual basis for the Christian contribution to efforts on behalf of peace and justice.
“It is to see a reflection of ourselves in the frail and infant God resting in his mother’s arms, and to realize that humanity is precious and sacred to the Lord,” Francis said.
That, the pontiff said, is precisely why the early church insisted on calling Mary the “Mother of God,” and not just the “Mother of Jesus” – to emphasize that “from the moment, that our Lord became incarnate in Mary, and for all time, he took on our humanity.”
“Henceforth, to serve human life is to serve God. All life, from life in the mother’s womb to that of the elderly, the suffering and the sick, and to that of the troublesome and even repellent, is to be welcomed, loved and helped.”
Mary, Francis said, is the permanent role model for a Christian whose life is anchored in peace.
“Mary is exactly what God wants us to be, what he wants his Church to be: a Mother who is tender and lowly, poor in material goods and rich in love, free of sin and united to Jesus, keeping God in our hearts and our neighbor in our lives,” he said.
In a typical flourish at the end of his homily on major Marian feasts, Francis led the assembly inside the basilica in reciting, “Mary, Holy Mother of God,” three times.
At noon Rome time today, Francis will deliver his first Angelus address of 2018 from the window of the papal apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
His next major public activity during the holiday season will come on Jan. 6, when he celebrates the feast of the Epiphany. Two days later, Francis will also deliver his annual speech to diplomats accredited to the Vatican, generally considered his most important foreign policy address of the year.