“… easier for the Lord to remove the Israelites from Egypt than to remove Egypt from the hearts of the Israelites”.

ROME — In his final public appearance of 2014, Pope Francis on Wednesday invited believers to a serious “examination of conscience” about sins both personal and communal during the past year, especially whether “the poor, weak, and marginalized are the center of our thoughts and daily actions.”

“We need a great daily attitude of Christian liberation,” the pope said, “to defend the poor rather than defending ourselves from the poor, and to defend the weak rather than defending ourselves from the weak.”

In his homily for a New Year’s Eve vespers service, Pope Francis set up a contrast between what he described as the liberation offered by Christ and the slavery imposed by sin.

“Paradoxically,” he said, “often more or less unconsciously we prefer slavery,” he said, arguing that the responsibility implied by freedom “frightens us.”

“A great Italian artist recently said that it was easier for the Lord to remove the Israelites from Egypt than to remove Egypt from the hearts of the Israelites,” the pope said, referring to a recent program on the Ten Commandments by Italian comedian and actor Roberto Benigni broadcast on Italian television.

“Liberty frightens us … [while] slavery reduces our sense of time to the present moment,” the pope said. “We live these moments disconnected from our past and our future, rather than being fully and really present facing eternity.”

“Slavery makes us believe we can’t dream, can’t fly and can’t hope,” Francis said.

As the Bishop of Rome, Francis placed special emphasis on the need for Romans to live up to their heritage as citizens of a city based on the “witness and martyrdom of Sts. Peter and Paul,” calling on them to fight corruption and to build “a more just city based on solidarity.”

Referring to traditional New Year’s fireworks displays, the pontiff said “they last only a few instants,” and called on people not to be seduced by “the fascination of the moment.”

It was another somber performance from Francis during the holiday season, after a Dec. 22 address to the elites of the Vatican cataloguing a series of “spiritual diseases” with which he believes they’re at times infected, and a Christmas Day message in which the pope lamented the suffering of children and of refugees in Iraq and Syria.

As is customary for popes on New Year’s Eve, Pope Francis led a vespers service followed by the traditional Te Deum hymn of praise in thanksgiving for the preceding year. The title comes from the Latin opening of the hymn, Te Deum laudamus, which means “Thee, O God, we praise.”

In his final tweet of 2014, Francis dispatched the simple message, “Thank you, Lord.” The pope’s Twitter feed, @Pontifex, is translated into nine languages and reaches some 17 million followers.

The Wednesday evening liturgy also involved a Eucharistic blessing by the pope and an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, capped by singing the traditional Christmastime hymn Adeste Fideles, or “O Come, All You Faithful.”

A Vatican spokesman said the pontiff would likely return to his residence afterward to watch a traditional year-end address by the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, who is in the final year of an unusual second term for Italian presidents.

Earlier on New Year’s Eve, Francis sent a message of closeness and support to survivors and the families of victims of a 2004 fire at the República Cromañón nightclub in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which took place on Dec. 30 and killed 164 people and left more than 600 injured.

The fire was considered a symbol of government failure in Argentina, since the nightclub had received a permit despite lacking basic safety measures such as fire extinguishers, and the future pope had developed close relations with the survivors.

On Thursday, Francis will celebrate a morning Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. Since 1968, at the direction of Pope Paul VI, Jan. 1 has also been marked by the Catholic Church as the World Day of Peace.

During his noontime Angelus address tomorrow, Francis is expected to ask the crowd assembled in St. Peter’s Square to listen to the ringing of a famous Italian bell in the province of Trent erected to commemorate the fallen of the First World War, and which has since become a national symbol of peace.

Pope Francis released his message for the World Day of Peace on Dec. 8, devoting this year’s observation to the fight against human trafficking and slavery.

“Even though the international community has adopted numerous agreements aimed at ending slavery in all its forms, and has launched various strategies to combat this phenomenon, millions of people today — children, women and men of all ages — are deprived of freedom and are forced to live in conditions akin to slavery,” the pope wrote.

The pope listed exploited laborers, migrants, people forced into prostitution, people trafficked for the sale of organs, forcibly enrolled soldiers, and kidnap victims by terrorist groups as examples of modern slaves.

“I invite everyone, in accordance with his or her specific role and responsibilities, to practice acts of fraternity towards those kept in a state of enslavement,” Francis wrote.

“I urgently appeal to all men and women of good will, and all those near or far, including the highest levels of civil institutions, who witness the scourge of contemporary slavery, not to become accomplices to this evil,” he said.

The Vatican’s holiday period closes Jan. 6 with a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis for the feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the Magi, or wise men, to the Christ child, and thus the revelation of God as a human being.

Then the pope resumes a busy working schedule, with his annual address to the diplomatic corps set for Jan. 12; later that day, he’s scheduled to depart for a week-long visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

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