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ROME – A visibly moved Pope Francis Thursday marked the Marian solemnity of the Immaculate Conception by praying for the “martyred” people of Ukraine, and urging faithful to invoke the Virgin Mary in praying for peace.
At one point, the pontiff appeared to shed tears while mentioning Ukraine.
Speaking to faithful gathered in Rome’s famed Piazza di Spagna, which he visits annually to celebrate the Dec. 8 feast, the pope said he would have liked to come “to bring you the thanksgiving of the Ukrainian people for the peace which for so long we have asked the Lord for.”
“Instead, I must still bring you the plea of the children, the elderly, the fathers and mothers, the youth of that martyred land,” he said, but voiced confidence that Mary is “with them and with all who are suffering, just as you were at the cross of your son.”
Pope Francis’s visit to the Piazza di Spagna for the Immaculate Conception was the first time the annual event has been public since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The past two years, the pope has made the visit alone, in the early hours of the morning, so as to avoid drawing a large crowd.
Prior to arriving at Piazza di Spagna, Francis stopped at the basilica of St. Mary Major to pray in front of his favorite icon, Maria Salus Popoli Romani, which is housed in the Borghese chapel of the papal basilica and which he visits before and after every international trip.
After laying his wreath at the base of the giant pillar of the Immaculate Conception in the Piazza di Spagna, the pope offered Mary both “the thanksgiving and the pleas of all your children, near and far.”
He offered her the love of men and women, both Christians and non-Christians, throughout the world who “have the greatest gratitude for you and for your beauty, all grace and humility: because in the midst of so many dark clouds, you are a sign of hope and consolation.”
Francis said he carried with him the smiles of all the children “who learn your name in front of your image, in the arms of mothers and grandmothers, and who begin to know that they also have a mother in heaven.”
In moments of life when these smiles are replaced by tears, he said, it is important to know the Virgin Mary and to have experienced her maternal care.
Francis also offered Mary “the gratitude” of elderly and aged, whose lives he said are “woven of memories, of joys and sorrows, of goals that they know well they have achieved with your help, holding their hand in yours.”
He pointed to families and parents who struggle to make ends meet, the number of which has drastically increased over the past few years amid the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine.
The pope prayed especially for young couples, “so that, looking to you and to Saint Joseph, they may courageously approach life trusting in God’s Providence.”
“I bring you the dreams and anxieties of young people, open to the future but held back by a culture full of things and poor in values, saturated with information and lacking in education, persuasive in deceiving and ruthless in disappointing,” he said.
Pope Francis specifically entrusted to Mary the youth who have been most affected by the coronavirus pandemic, “so that they slowly start shaking and spreading their wings, and rediscover the tase of flying high.”
As the world still reels from a lack of peace, the pope said that in looking to Mary, “we can continue to believe and hope that love will conquer hatred, that truth will conquer lies, that forgiveness will conquer offense, that peace will conquer war. So be it!”
Francis then greeted several civil and ecclesial authorities in attendance, including a lengthy handshake with Filipino Cardinal Luis Tagle, whom the pope recently removed from his post as president of global Catholic charity, Caritas Internationalis.
In a special Angelus address earlier that morning, the pope asked the Virgin Mary to intercede in achieving “universal peace, in particular for martyred Ukraine, which suffers so much.”
“I think of the words of the angel to the virgin: ‘nothing is impossible for God.’ With God’s help, peace is possible; disarmament is possible,” he said, saying “God wants our good will.”
He focused on Mary’s title, given by the angel at the annunciation, when he called her, “full of grace.”
Though Mary was without sin, this grace was also given to believers at baptism, he said, and stressed the importance of the sacrament, asking faithful if they remembered their baptism date.
“That day is the day of the great grace, of a new beginning of life, of an original grace that we have. God descended into our lives that day,” he said, saying the white garments worn at baptism serve as a reminder that “underneath the evil we have stained ourselves with for years, there is in us a greater good than all those evils that have befallen us.”
“When things go wrong and we get discouraged, when we get discouraged and risk feeling useless or wrong, let us think about this, about original grace. God is with us, God has been with me since that day,” he said.
To do good “requires a cost, requires a battle,” he said, and pointed to what he said was Mary’s courageous decision to say ‘yes’ to God’s plan for her life and to “the risk of God.”
“It is hard to choose the good; it’s hard to keep the good that is in us,” he said, and urged believers to reflect on the many times in which they have wasted goodness in favor of “the flattery of evil” and in harmful things, or by ignoring those in need.
Amid all this, Mary “is with us in the fight,” he said, “And we, who work hard to choose the good, can entrust ourselves to her.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen