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ROME – Pope Francis on New Year’s Day urged believers to imitate the Virgin Mary in developing a mature, adult faith and asked that greater support be given to mothers and more protections be enacted for women who face violence.

Speaking to attendees of the Vatican’s New Year’s Day Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope alluded to the fact that Jan. 1, in addition to beginning a new year, also marks the Catholic feast of Mary, the Mother of God.

Thus, “the New Year begins under the sign of the mother,” he said, insisting that “a mother’s gaze is the path to rebirth and growth.”

“We need mothers, women who look at the world not to exploit it, but so that it can have life. Women who, seeing with the heart, can combine dreams and aspirations with concrete reality, without drifting into abstraction and sterile pragmatism,” he said.

Since give life and women are the primary ‘keepers’ of the world, “let us all make greater efforts to promote mothers and to protect women,” the pope said, adding, “How much violence is directed against women! Enough! To hurt a woman is to insult God, who from a woman took on our humanity.”

Pope Francis spoke during his homily for Mass New Year’s Day, which he presided over himself despite his surprise decision New Year’s Eve not to preside over the Vatican’s traditional Vespers service. Instead, Vespers was celebrated by Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, while the pope sat in a chair to the side of the main altar, rising only to give the homily and during certain parts of the liturgy.

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In addition to the new year, Jan. 1 also marks the World Day of Prayer of Peace. In his message for this year’s observance of the day, Pope Francis emphasized intergenerational solidarity and lamented that war and conflict are still rampant across the world despite the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic. He also criticized the fact that money continues to be invested in military operations while other areas, such as education, are seeing a shortage in funding.

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Saturday was not the first time Pope Francis has spoken out on the topics of motherhood and violence against women.

He has repeatedly spoken out in support of mothers, and in his Dec. 26, Angelus address decried Italy’s “demographic winter” of a falling birth rate and the increased preference for couples not to have children. He has often lamented Europe’s low birth rates, and in the past has suggested taking in migrants to compensate.

The pope has also consistently criticized violence against women. He recently appeared on a special program on Italian TV channel TG5 in which he called violence against women “almost Satanic,” and in 2020, his entire New Year’s Day homily was dedicated to the issue.

In his homily Saturday, the pope focused on the role of Mary in the birth of Jesus, whose decision to be born into “littleness and poverty” he said fills the world with hope.

“His poverty is good news for everyone, especially the marginalized, the rejected and those who do not count in the eyes of the world. For that is how God comes: not on a fast track, and lacking even a cradle,” he said.

However, Francis noted that given the circumstances of her son’s birth, Mary might have felt differently in the moment, as she had to endure “the scandal of the manger” after being told by an angel that her son would inherit the throne of their ancestor King David.

“Now, Mary has to lay him in a trough for animals. How can she hold together the throne of a king and the lowly manger? How can she reconcile the glory of the Most High and the bitter poverty of a stable? What can be more painful for a mother than to see her child suffering poverty?” the pope asked.

Yet faced with undeniably troubling circumstances, Mary does not complain, but instead “keeps silent” and chooses to reflect on what the angel said.

Her reaction, Pope Francis said, is not the wonder and amazement of when one’s faith is just beginning, when “everything seems easy and straightforward,” but is rather indicative of “a mature, adult faith.”

“Spiritual fruitfulness is born of trials and testing,” he said. “From the quiet of Nazareth and from the triumphant promises received by the Angel – the beginnings – Mary now finds herself in the dark stable of Bethlehem. Yet that is where she gives God to the world.”

Everyone to an extent experiences a similar problem, with hope that everything will be fine when suddenly an unexpected problem arises “like a bolt from the blue,” the pope said.

“That can also happen in the life of faith, when the joy of the Gospel is put to the test in troubling situations,” he said, yet Mary shows believers how to get through difficult moments by adopting “a more mature faith.”

In order to get through this “clash between the ideal and the real,” Francis said it is necessary to follow Mary’s example and to keep everything she’s experienced, the joys and hopes, but also the fears and anxieties, in her heart and to ponder them through prayer and trust.

Mary, he said, does not keep the beautiful and the unpleasant things apart, but “binds them together” and by doing so, is able to see them from God’s perspective and discover “their greater meaning.”

“In her mother’s heart, Mary comes to realize that the glory of the Most High appears in humility; she welcomes the plan of salvation whereby God must lie in a manger. She sees the divine Child frail and shivering, and she accepts the wondrous divine interplay between grandeur and littleness,” he said.

Mothers, he said, know how to be aware and realistic while also keeping sight of the bigger picture, and they know how to solve disagreements and bring peace to a situation.

“In this way, they transform problems into opportunities for rebirth and growth,” he said, adding, “We need such people, capable of weaving the threads of communion in place of the barbed wire of conflict and division.”

“The church is a mother, and mothers are like this. The church is a woman, women are like this. Because of this, we cannot find the place of women in the Church without reflecting it in this heart of a woman and mother. This is women’s place in the Church, the great ‘place,’ from which others, more concrete, secondary, come. The Church is a mother, the Church is a woman,” he said.

“At the beginning of the New Year, then, let us place ourselves under the protection of this woman, the Mother of God, who is also our mother. May she help us to keep and ponder all things, unafraid of trials and with the joyful certainty that the Lord is faithful and can transform every cross into a resurrection,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen