Pope Francis said on Wednesday that it is a civilizational loss when dogs and cats replace children in society, encouraging couples to “take the risk” to become parents.

“The other day, I was talking about the demographic winter that we have today … many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one — but they have two dogs, two cats,” Pope Francis said at his general audience on Jan. 5.

“Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children. Yes, it’s funny, I understand, but it is the reality, and this denial of fatherhood and motherhood diminishes us, takes away humanity.”

Speaking in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, the pope said that with this “selfishness” on the part of some couples, “civilization becomes older” as the “richness of fatherhood and motherhood is lost.”

“I ask St. Joseph for the grace to awaken consciences and think about this: about having children. Fatherhood and motherhood are the fullness of a person’s life. Think about this,” he said.

The pope’s first general audience of 2022 was marked by some changes. The Vatican announced on Jan. 5 that from now on religious and lay Vatican employees would read the greetings in different languages at the Wednesday audience.

For the first time, lay men and women read the language greetings. Sister Andrea Lorena Chacón, a member of the Eucharistic Missionaries of Nazareth, read the Spanish-language greeting, while Christopher Wells, an employee of Vatican Radio, was the English reader.

At the live-streamed audience, the pope continued his series of meditations on the life of St. Joseph by focusing on the saint’s role as the foster father of Jesus.

“This particular aspect of Joseph allows us today to reflect on fatherhood and motherhood. And this, I believe, is very important: to think about fatherhood today because we live in an era of notorious orphanhood,” Pope Francis said.

The pope said that one can sense a feeling of orphanhood among many people.

“May St. Joseph, who took the place of the real father, God, help us to understand how to resolve this sense of orphanhood that is so harmful to us today,” the pope said.

Pope Francis spent much of his audience speaking about “accepting life through the path of adoption,” which he called “a generous and beautiful” act.

“Joseph shows us that this type of bond is not secondary, it is not an afterthought. This kind of choice is among the highest forms of love and fatherhood and motherhood,” he said.

“How many children in the world are waiting for someone to take care of them. And how many spouses wish to be fathers and mothers, but fail for biological reasons; or, although they already have children, they want to share family affection with those who have been deprived of it. We must not be afraid to choose the path of adoption, to take the ‘risk’ of acceptance.”

Pope Francis underlined that “having a child is always a risk, both natural and adopted.” But he added that “it is more risky not to have any.”

“It is more risky to deny fatherhood, or to deny motherhood, be it physical and the spiritual. A man and a woman who voluntarily do not develop a sense of fatherhood and motherhood are missing something fundamental, important. Think about this, please,” he said.

“I hope that the institutions will always be ready to help regarding adoption by seriously monitoring, but also simplifying the process necessary for the dream of many little ones who need a family to come true, and of many spouses who wish to give of themselves in love.”

A group of circus performers from the Rony Roller Circus in Rome came on stage with loud music and flaming batons just before the pope led pilgrims in the Our Father at the end of the audience.

The 10-minute performance included a trombone and saxophone rendition of “It’s Now or Never” by people dressed as clowns.

A young man in a black mesh shirt embellished with pink flames and rhinestones juggled batons while shaking his hips to techno music, and a woman in a leotard took to the stage lying on her back while juggling soccer balls between her legs above her.

“I thank the boys and girls of the circus who performed this show. It is a performance that puts us in touch with beauty, and beauty lifts us up, … and beauty is a way to go to the Lord,” Pope Francis told the circus artists at the end of the spectacle.

The pope offered a prayer at the end of his meditation that “no one will feel deprived of a bond of fatherly love,” and asked St. Joseph to intercede for couples who wish to have a child:

St. Joseph,
you who loved Jesus with fatherly love,
be close to the many children who have no family
and who wish for a father and a mother.
Support the couples who are unable to have children,
Help them to discover, through this suffering, a greater plan.
Make sure that no one lacks a home, a bond,
a person to take care of him or her;
and heal the selfishness of those who close themselves off from life,
that they may open their hearts to love. Amen.