ROME – While he skipped morning Mass due to what the Vatican called a “painful sciatica,” Pope Francis was in the saddle again for his Angelus address later in the day, reflecting on the role of Mary as Mother of God and the need for a change in attitude at the end of a tumultuous year.

In his Jan. 1 Angelus address, the pope, who stood throughout his speech, reflected on the need for peace and an increase in solidarity and attention to others in the new year.

To this end, he offered prayers for the troubled nations of Yemen and Nigeria, noting that the Yemen conflict has “many innocent victims,” many of whom are children who now lack access to school, medicine, and even food.

After offering a moment of silent prayer for Yemen, he prayed for the save return of Nigerian Bishop Moses Chikwe and his driver, who were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen Dec. 27, marking the latest in a string of kidnappings of priests and other Church representatives in the African nation.

Praying that all such incidents would soon end, Francis asked specifically that Nigeria be able to “find again peace, concord, and hope.”

Pope Francis’s Angelus came after a brief hiatus from his holiday liturgies.

Due to his sciatica, the pope skipped his Dec. 31 vespers service for New Year’s Eve, which was celebrated instead by Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, and his Mass for New Year’s Day, which was instead presided over by the Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

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This year the liturgies were celebrated with only a limited number of faithful present, due to ongoing restrictions on public gatherings related to the coronavirus pandemic.

New Year’s Day also coincides with the Catholic solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, as well as the Vatican’s celebration of the World Day of Peace.

In his Angelus address, the pope told a world still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic that the new year ought to be “spent for our human and spiritual growth, that it be a time in which hatred and division are resolved, that it be a time to build and not to destroy, to take care of each other and of creation.”

“The painful events that marked humanity’s journey last year, especially the pandemic, taught us how much it is necessary to take an interest in others’ problems and to share their concerns,” he said.

Stressing the importance of everyday actions, the pope said, “Peace can become a reality if we begin to be in peace with ourselves and with those who are near us, removing the obstacles that prevent us from taking care of those who find themselves in need and in indigence,” urging faithful to adopt an attitude of care so that “indifference, rejection and rivalry – which unfortunately prevail – will be defeated.”

Peace, he said, is not the absence of war or conflict, but rather consists of a life “rich in meaning” and defined by charitable action towards others. By striving for this, “that peace, so longed for and always endangered by violence, by egoism and evil, might become possible and achievable,” he said.

“My hope is that peace might reign in the hearts of men and women and in families, in recreational and workplaces, in communities and in nations,” he said, voicing his hope for “a happy and serene 2021.”

During Mass earlier that morning, the pope in his prepared text, which was read aloud by Parolin during the ceremony, focused on the role of Mary, offering three verbs Francis said were key themes in the day’s readings: to bless, to be born, and to find.

Pointing to God’s blessing for the people of Israel in the readings, Francis said that to bless “is no pious exhortation,” but is rather “a specific request.”

“It is important that, today too, priests constantly bless the People of God and that the faithful themselves be bearers of blessing,” he said, and calling Jesus God’s blessing incarnate, added, “Every time we open our hearts to Jesus, God’s blessing enters our lives.”

Mary herself was blessed by God, and because of this, “she brings us God’s blessing,” he said, adding, “We too are called to bless, to ‘speak well’ in God’s name.

Currently, the world “is gravely polluted by the way we ‘speak’ and think ‘badly’ of others, of society, of ourselves.” To speak badly of someone, the pope said, “corrupts and decays, whereas blessing restores life and gives the strength needed to begin anew.”

Francis then noted that Jesus came into the world like every other person – not as an adult, but “after nine months in the womb of his Mother, from whom he allowed his humanity to be shaped. The heart of the Lord began to beat within Mary; the God of life drew oxygen from her.”

“Ever since then, Mary has united us to God because in her God bound himself to our flesh, and he has never left it,” the pope said, insisting that Mary is more than just a “bridge” joining humanity to God, but is rather “the road that we must travel in order to reach him.”

“Through Mary, we encounter God the way he wants us to: in tender love, in intimacy, in the flesh. For Jesus is not an abstract idea; he is real and incarnate.”

Women are familiar with this type of “quiet growth,” he said, whereas “men tend to be abstract and want things right away. Women are concrete and know how to weave life’s threads with quiet patience. How many women, how many mothers, thus give birth and rebirth to life, offering the world a future!”

Pope Francis then recalled the many times that Mary in scripture was described as cherishing and pondering important moments in her heart. He stressed the importance of cultivating a life of prayer and an attitude of care toward others.

“Everything starts from this: From cherishing others, the world and creation,” he said, asking, “What good is it to know many persons and things if we fail to cherish them?”

Referring to the COVID-19 vaccines rolling out in many countries, he said that “while we hope for new beginnings and new cures” in 2021, “let us not neglect care.”

“Together with a vaccine for our bodies, we need a vaccine for our hearts,” he said, adding, “That vaccine is care. This will be a good year if we take care of others, as Our Lady does with us.”

He then pointed to the figure of the shepherds who go to see Jesus on the night of his birth, noting that once they arrived, they did not find “miraculous and spectacular signs,” but rather “a simple family.”

“We could never have imagined such a God, born of a woman, who revolutionizes history with tender love. Yet by grace we did find him,” he said. “And we discovered that his forgiveness brings new birth, his consolation enkindles hope, his presence bestows irrepressible joy.”

“We found him, but we must not lose sight of him,” Francis said, and questioned viewers and the small number of attendees about what they are called to in the new year, saying, “It would be good to find time for someone.”

Time, he said, “is a treasure that all of us possess, yet we guard it jealously, since we want to use it only for ourselves.”

“Let us ask for the grace to find time for God and for our neighbor – for those who are alone or suffering, for those who need someone to listen and show concern for them,” he said, adding, “If we can find time to give, we will be amazed and filled with joy, like the shepherds.”

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