ROME – In a special New Year’s Eve liturgy Tuesday, Pope Francis offered a rare direct message to Rome, encouraging locals weary after a year of political bickering that has left many more confused than clear about their future.

He also appeared to issue a subtle chastisement of those who take a hard line on immigration, urging Romans to build bridges and bonds of fraternity rather than opposition.

In his annual Dec. 31 New Year’s Eve celebration of Vespers, Francis contrasted the cities where Jesus was born and where he died, noting that he was born in Nazareth, “a small city never mentioned in scripture” apart from a few bleak references, and he “died discarded by the great city, by Jerusalem, crucified outside of its walls.”

“God’s decision is clear: To reveal his love, he chooses the small city and the despised city, and when he arrives to Jerusalem, he unites with the sinners and the discarded,” the pope said.

From the cross, condemned and abandoned to “sarcastic comments,” God gathers everything and everyone to himself, he said, noting that Jesus’ ministry was not limited to the temple, but rather, he spent his days with the people.

“In the city God set up his tent…and from there he never departed! His presence is in the city, also in our city of Rome, which must not be fabricated, but discovered, revealed,” Francis said, and pointed to the day’s Psalm, 147, which speaks of the building up of Jerusalem and the gathering of the outcasts.

“Tonight, I would like our gaze on the city of Rome to look at things from God’s point of view,” Francis said, stressing that “Rome is not only a complicated city, with many problems, inequalities, corruption and social tensions.”

Rather, God “delights in seeing how many acts of good are done every day, how much strength and dedication there is in promoting brotherhood and solidarity,” he said, calling Rome a city “in which God sent his word, which through the spirit nestles in the hearts of its inhabitants and pushes them to believe, to hope despite everything, and to love fighting for the good of all.”

Francis said that he has met “courageous people,” both believers and non-believers, during his time in Rome. These people, he said, are the “beating heart” of the city.

“God truly does not cease to change history and the face of our city through the small and poor people who inhabit it: He chooses them, inspires them, motivates them to action, makes them supportive, pushes them to launch networks, create virtuous bonds, and to build bridges rather than walls,” he said.

“It is precisely through these thousands of streams of living water of the spirit that the word of God fertilizes the city and turns it from sterile to a joyful mother,” he said.

Francis’s words come after what has been a tumultuous year for Rome.

In just the last few weeks, three senators from Italy’s ruling Five Star Movement (M5S) have left to join the far-right League party and the country’s education minister resigned, prompting Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to issue an appeal for unity.

In September, the M5S formed a coalition with the center-left Democracy Party (PD) following the collapse of a prior alliance with the League, at the time headed by former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, a populist known for his harsh stance on immigration who has often been criticized for using religious symbols to boost his political capital among Catholics, including a rosary of Our Lady of Medjugorje.

Salvini brought down the Italian government in September in a bid to force elections. However, his plan backfired and instead of coming out on top, he was forced out while the M5S, the League’s previous coalition partner, jumped ship and forged an alliance with the PD.

However, rather than ironing out a clear vision for Italy’s future, the past four months have been marred by political infighting with little action taken on policy, leaving citizens fed up and skeptical that any meaningful change will happen.

In his New Year’s Eve address, Francis questioned what God wants from the city of Rome. Above all, God “pushes us to throw ourselves into the fray, to involve ourselves in the encounter and relationship with the inhabitants of the city so that his message runs swiftly,” he said.

The pope’s message of fraternity is also likely to be heard by many Italians as a indirect reference to the country’s immigration debates, which has been the dominant political issue in Italy since the beginning of the European refugee crisis.

“We are called to encounter others and to listen to their existence, their cry for help. Listening is already an act of love,” Francis said, urging citizens to make time to speak with other people and to “recognize with a contemplative gaze the presence and the action of God in their lives.”

Doing this “is truly a service of love that changes reality,” he said, adding that if people are able to do this, “in the city and also in the Church a new air will circulate, the desire to get back on the road, to overcome the old logic of opposition and fences, to collaborate together in building a more just and fraternal city.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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