Pope Francis’ birthday cake

We have just entered the new year of 2019. A new year brings a great deal of hope for renewed outlook on life which includes resolutions we sometimes make. As we begin the year and undertake our resolutions, we may liken the occasion of the new year to that of a birthday. Pope Francis recently celebrated his 82nd birthday Dec. 17. He once said that birthdays are the occasion to “remember all that God has done for us,” emphasizing that “memory is an aspect of life,” and that it is “a great misfortune to lose the memory of all that God has done for us.”

Pope Francis has celebrated his birthdays in many different and interesting ways which draw attention to their importance but not to him. The manner in which he celebrates the birthdays always makes a point as to what is important in life through the passing of years. Certainly, this importance is significant to reflect upon during the new year. In 2017, the pope had a pizza party with young people on his birthday at which he served a 13-foot-long pizza. The year before he held a celebration to which he invited homeless people to enjoy desserts from his home country of Argentina. The year before that, thousands of people gathered to dance the tango as a group for the pope in St. Peter’s Square. Last month, Pope Francis celebrated his birthday with children and families from the dispensary of Santa Marta which assists some 400 children in need.

At his 82nd birthday, the children brought the pope a large birthday cake decorated with the papal colors at which the pope remarked “I hope that there is no indigestion with that cake so big!” The pope spoke very movingly of the need to assist the young children as an essential part of understanding the reality of life. He stated that, “We must lower ourselves, as we lower ourselves to kiss a child. They teach us this.” He went on to express that, “The proud, the proud cannot understand life, because they cannot lower themselves.” The pope declined to sit on an upholstered papal chair but made himself comfortable on the stage steps of the Vatican auditorium.

Pope Francis’ words are very important ones to keep before us at the beginning of a new year especially as we all strive for renewed outlook on life and look to what really is important in life. He stressed that being like a child is essential to understanding life and that we must lower ourselves to be like children. One of the continued emphases of Jesus’ teaching was precisely what Pope Francis referred to on his birthday.

Jesus stressed that, “Whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mk 10:15). We see Jesus choosing children whom the disciples attempted to keep away from Him as being insignificant and bothersome. To this Jesus objected, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt 19:14). Furthermore, every child becomes the unique child that Jesus himself is, for he emphatically said, “Whoever receives one such child as this in my name receives me” (Mt 18:5). A child is an image of the Son of God, born in Bethlehem, and who forever has his abode with the Father.

Jesus was endeared to children because they possess all the qualities He possesses as the son of the Father. In his life on this earth, those qualities became apparent in human form. It is nothing less than these qualities which make for the wonder of life, human and divine. We might single out three childlike qualities as worthy of attention during this new year: dependence, trust, and innocence.

A child depends on his or her parents. It is through them that the child comes into existence and upon them that the child relies for sustenance and nurturing. A child is not at all shy of this dependence. It is natural and it is good. As a child grows older that dependency changes, but it never departs. A person continues to depend on what is given to him or her from the day of birth, indeed, from the moment of conception. That is why what a parent gives to their child is so critical.

We depend on God. We come from him, and cannot exist without him. He has given us everything that is good and lavishes his infinite love upon us. We should neither forget where we come from nor be shy of our complete dependence on God. Without him we can do nothing. With Him life makes sense and has meaning. Such is the dependency of the Christ child and the Son of God eternally begotten from the Father.

A child has an innate ability to trust. The child trusts its parents and likewise trusts others around him or her. A child is not born skeptical or critical but learns to be so from trust which is betrayed. We not only need to recognize our complete dependency upon God without being shy of it but also to trust him completely. He loves us and knows what is best for us. He was born as a child of the Virgin Mary and gave his life on the cross for us because he loves us. We can stop loving him but he never stops loving us. Childlike trust is crucial in our relationship to God. The Lord trusted his father completely, even on the cross when he seemed abandoned by him. Such trust is that of a child and truly is the trust of the Son of God.

A child is innocent. Innocence is a quality that is very much needed in our society. In many ways, our children are robbed of their innocence at an early age in order to appear sophisticated and relevant. There is nothing wrong with appropriate childlike innocence. In fact, it is wholesome and natural. It was that type of innocence which Adam and Eve lost when they turned from God through original sin. The Son of God was innocent and yet he suffered for our sins. He took upon himself the scars which the lack of innocence brought into the world. In a world so taken with sophistication, a return to the innocence of a child is a great blessing and grace.

As we begin a new year, we need to become like children as the Lord himself desires of us. As Pope Francis so wisely said on his birthday, “The proud cannot understand life, because they cannot lower themselves.” Dependency, trust, and innocence are qualities of Christ’s human life, who lowered himself for our sakes. May they be with us throughout the new year.