Like many of you, as I was celebrating Thanksgiving, I was also following Pope Francis’ African pilgrimage in the media.

The Holy Father’s visit was a journey of hope and a call to conscience.

As always, the Holy Father’s words and gestures in Africa were challenging and inspiring — calling us as Christians to take responsibility for the shape of our culture and our society, calling us to defend human dignity, to support the family, and to stand in solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable.

“Fidelity to God, honesty and integrity of life, and genuine concern for the good of others bring us that peace which the world cannot give,” the pope said. “This does not diminish our concern for this world, as if we only look to the life to come. Instead, it gives purpose to our lives in this world, and helps us to reach out to those in need, to cooperate with others for the common good, and to build a more just society which promotes human dignity, defends God’s gift of life and protects the wonders of nature, his creation and our common home.”

I was struck by the pope’s beautiful call — again and again — to prayer.

Prayer is the foundation of the Christian life, the pope insisted. Without it, we have nothing. Without prayer, we lose the sense of who we are and who God made us to be.

The pope said: “A man or a woman loses the best part of themselves, of their humanity, when they stop praying, because then they feel all-powerful, because then they don’t feel the need to ask help from the Lord in the face of so many tragedies.”

It is fitting that the pope’s visit to Africa concluded on the first Sunday of Advent.  

Because Advent is always a time of prayer and new beginnings. It is the start of a new liturgical year for the Church — and it is always a chance for a new beginning in our Christian life. Not starting all over — but deepening our commitment to Christ, growing in our relationship with God.

Relationships are living things. And every living thing withers and gets weaker if it is not being nourished and renewed. What is not growing is, in some sense, dying. So we can never stand still in our Christian lives or imagine that we have “done enough” in our relationship with God.

The beauty of the Christian life is that we can always grow deeper in love for God. He is always calling us to a closer, more intimate friendship with him — and to greater service in building his Kingdom on earth.

Pope Francis has declared this coming year to be an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, beginning on Dec. 8 with the Solemnity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

The family of God here in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles will observe this year with special initiatives and programs. But the real program for the Year of Mercy is a program of the heart. Mercy begins inside each one of us. Mercy is the Christian attitude toward life.

Love is an exchange of gifts. One of the Church fathers said that and it is true. We have been forgiven by God and in exchange we forgive others. The love he has shown to us — the mercy that he shows us day in and day out — is the mercy that we must show to others.

In this Year of Mercy, all of us need to practice forgiveness — beginning in our own hearts. And we need to encourage understanding and foster reconciliation in all our relationships. This is the foundation for happiness in our lives and the foundation for a new society in which we can live as brothers and sisters

So let us make mercy our “project” as a Church in this jubilee year to come. Mercy is our mission as Christians. Let us try — in all our ministries and in every area of our lives — to walk with our brothers and sisters, to make the merciful presence of God known in our world.

Let’s make that a resolution — in our homes and parishes and in the workplace. To change others by showing them how Christ has changed us. We can do this without big words or gestures — but just living with confidence and love and an attitude of understanding. If we do this, the power of the Gospel — the mercy and kindness of God — will shine through.

In this holy season, let’s keep praying for one another, especially for those who are troubled or facing problems.

And may the Blessed Virgin Mary help us to accompany her during these weeks of Advent — so that we can welcome the Child Jesus at Christmas with her, and with a strong heart, a heart that is full of mercy and love.

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