ROME – On the World Day of the Poor, Pope Francis pointed to the many global challenges afflicting humanity, saying these crises should not lead people to despair, but are rather opportunities for growth and charity, especially toward the needy.

Speaking to faithful gathered for Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis noted that much of the world currently faces violence, injustice, and persecution, as well as challenges related to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, “which has left in its wake not only physical, but also psychological, economic and social maladies.”

Not only are wars and violent conflicts on the rise, but now also, much more than in the past, people are migrating in large numbers “in search of hope,” and society also faces vast problems related to unemployment, exploitation, and poor working conditions, he said.

Today as in the past, “the poor pay the heaviest price in any crisis,” he said. “Yet if our heart is deadened and indifferent, we cannot hear their faint cry of pain, we cannot cry with them and for them, we cannot see how much loneliness and anguish also lie hidden in the forgotten corners of our cities.”

The World Day of the Poor, he said, is an invitation to “break through that inner deafness which prevents us from hearing the stifled cry of pain of the frailest.”

Pope Francis’s Nov. 13 Mass marked the 6th edition of the World Day of the Poor, which was first observed in 2017 following the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

After two years of a pandemic that caused a crippled economy and left social crisis in its wake and amid the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, the impact of which has been felt throughout the world, the number of people classified as in poverty or who are in need has significantly increased.

According to Caritas Italy, in 2021, those in absolute poverty in the country numbered around 5.6 million, roughly 1.4 million of whom are children.

In his homily, Pope Francis focused on two instructions given by Jesus in the day’s Gospel, to “beware that you are not led astray” and to “bear witness.”

By warning his disciples not to be led astray, Jesus, the pope said, means “avoiding the temptation to interpret dramatic events in a superstitious or catastrophic way, as if we are now close to the end of the world and it is useless to commit ourselves to doing good.”

Thinking this way implies letting oneself be guided by fear, and when this happens, “we may end up looking for answers with morbid curiosity in the ever-present chicanery of magic or horoscopes,” he said, adding off-the-cuff that “many practicing Catholics look to the horoscope as if it were the voice of God.”

When guided by fear, it is also easy to be tempted by “some last-minute ‘messiah’ who peddles wild theories, usually conspiratorial and full of doom and gloom,” he said, but insisted that “The Spirit of the Lord is not to be found in such approaches,” and urged faithful to stay close to God and to interpret events through the eyes of faith.

Jesus in the Gospel assures his disciples that for those who stay close to him, “not a hair of your head will perish,” the pope said, saying dramatic events such as war, suffering, and disaster are not the end.

These things, he said, are “not a good reason for letting ourselves be paralyzed by fear or for yielding to the defeatism of those who think that everything is lost and that it is useless to take an active part in life.”

Rather, a Christian attitude does not give in to resignation or discouragement, even in the most difficult situations, because God is ultimately the God of hope, “who always raises up,” he said, adding, “with him we can lift up our gaze and begin anew.”

What Christians ought to do in the face of suffering or difficulty, he said, is to ask what God is doing through it, and what good they can contribute.

These moments, he said, give people “the chance to do something good, starting from our situation in life, even when it is not ideal.”

“It is a skill typically Christian not to be a victim of everything that happens, but to seize the opportunity that lies hidden in everything that befalls us, the good that can come about even from negative situations,” he said, saying “The bad spirit wants us to transform crisis into conflict,” but insisted that moments of trial are rather an opportunity for growth.

In the face of “this cruel third world war in pieces,” the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the suffering of so many children, people can waste money and even their lives “without having the courage to go forward,” he said, but urged Christians to “not listen to prophets of doom.”

“Let us not be enchanted by the sirens of populism, which exploit people’s real needs by facile and hasty solutions. Let us not follow the false ‘messiahs’ who, in the name of profit, proclaim recipes useful only for increasing the wealth of a few, while condemning the poor to the margins of society,” he said.

Rather, Pope Francis urged Christians to bear witness and to “light candles of hope in the midst of darkness” and seize opportunities to spread joy and fraternity.

“Let us commit ourselves courageously to justice, the rule of law and peace, and stand at the side of the weakest,” he said, noting that if one were to go to the “hidden corners” of the city, they would see “much suffering and many discarded.”

He closed his homily telling Christians not to be content in admiring “the beautiful stones of the temple, while failing to recognize God’s true temple, our fellow men and women, especially the poor, in whose face, in whose history, in whose wounds, we encounter Jesus.”

After the pope’s Mass, lunch will be served for the poor and homeless in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall by the d’Amico Società di Navigazione company, which is a global leader in marine transportation.

In the lead up to the World Day of the Poor, for the first time after a two year pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, a portable clinic was set up in St. Peter’s Square providing free medical checkups, electrocardiograms, flu shots, and COVID tests.

A separate portable clinic has been carrying out tests for viruses such as hepatitis C, HIV, and tuberculosis.

Pope Francis, as part of World Day of the Poor initiatives, is also providing food baskets to some 5,000 families, which will be distributed throughout Rome to parishes who made requests.

An Italian supermarket chain provided the food for the baskets, which contain pasta, rice, flour, salt, coffee, oil and milk.

Due to the difficulty some families face in paying the bills amid the ongoing energy crisis, Italy’s Unipol Sai Insurance company has offered to pay the gas and electricity bills of needy families identified through charitable centers.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen