ROME – Pope Francis during a prayer service New Year’s Eve said the Church’s Christmas season is one of solidarity, a practice that is especially needed as fallout from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to impact individuals and families around the world.
Speaking to those gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica for his traditional New Year’s Eve Vespers service, the pope said Christmas is a time of wonder and amazement but cautioned that it is not “an amazement that is not limited to superficial sentiment, connected with the externals of the feast, or worse yet, with the frenzy of consumerism.”
“If Christmas is reduced to this, nothing changes: tomorrow will be just like yesterday, next year will be like last year, and so on,” he said.
he said the Virgin Mary is the first and greatest witness to this amazement because of her humility, saying, “Her heart is filled with amazement without the shadow of romanticism, of sweeteners, of spiritualization.”
Christian amazement, he said, “is not the result of special effects, of fantasy worlds, but from the mystery of reality: there is nothing more amazing and stupefying than reality!”
The reality of Christmas, he said, is that Jesus chose to come into the world and to share in its humanity in order to lead the “lost and dispersed” souls back to God.
This sense of being lost “has grown in the world during this time of the pandemic,” Francis said, noting that the initial reaction to the crisis was one in which “we felt in solidarity in the same boat, yet not long after that, the ‘every man for himself’ temptation” spread.
“But thank God we reacted again with a sense of responsibility,” he said.
Friday’s Vespers service was accompanied by the singing of the traditional Te Deum hymn in gratitude for the year that has passed. Notably, Pope Francis, while still giving the main homily, did not preside over the service, but sat in a chair off to one side of the main altar and “assisted” in the celebration, which was instead presided over by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals. Re also presided over last year’s Vespers, as Pope Francis opted out due to pain from sciatica.
The pope’s usual post-Vespers visit to the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square has been cancelled this year in a bid to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
In his remarks, Pope Francis said that having reacted to the pandemic with solidarity, “We truly can and must say ‘thank You, God,’ because the choice to be responsible in solidarity does not come from the world.”
Rather, it comes from Jesus Christ, “who has once and for all impressed on our history the ‘route’ of our original calling: to be brothers and sisters all, children of the same Father,” he said.
Pope Francis said this general sense of belonging to the same family is reflected in the city of Rome, which is not only home to the headquarters of the global Catholic Church but is also an international hub in which “everyone feels at home because this city preserves a universal openness within it.”
This openness, he said, “comes from its history, from its culture. It comes primarily from the Gospel of Christ that laid down deep roots here, made fruitful by the blood of the martyrs.”
However, the pope cautioned against seeing only the façade of Rome, saying the beauty and fraternity of the city are not found in eloquent speeches or “bombastic” events, but the daily and weekly attention given to “those who struggle the most.”
It is the attention paid to “those families who feel the weight of the crisis most, to those persons with serious disabilities and their families, to all those who need to use public transportation to go to work, to all who live on the outskirts, to those who have been overwhelmed by some failure in life and need social services, and so forth,” he said.
While recognizing that Rome is a city that “never ceases to enchant,” the pope noted that it is often a difficulty city for those who live in it and is “unfortunately not always dignified” for inhabitants or visitors.
Although he did not give specific examples, Francis said Rome is also a city “that sometimes rejects,” and voiced hope that everyone who lives and works in the city, or who is visiting as a pilgrim or tourist, appreciates the city “for its welcoming care for the dignity of life, for our common home, for the weakest and most vulnerable.”
“May everyone be amazed, discovering a beauty in this city that is, I would say, consistent, and that evokes gratitude,” he said.
Pope Francis closed his homily saying it is the infant Jesus who shows the world how to walk the path of solidarity and welcome and urging believers to “follow him on our daily journey.”
Jesus, he said, “brings time to its fullness, He gives meaning to what we do and to the days we live. Let us trust in joyful times and in sorrowful times: the hope He gives us is a hope that never disappoints.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen