Pope Francis explained Thursday why the Catholic Church gives thanks to God at the close of a calendar year, even years that have been marked by tragedy, such as 2020's coronavirus pandemic.

In a homily read by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re Dec. 31, Pope Francis said "tonight we give space to thanks for the year that is drawing to a close. 'We praise you, God, we proclaim you Lord…'"

Cardinal Re delivered the pope's homily at the Vatican's First Vespers liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica. Vespers, also known as Evening Prayer, is part of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Due to sciatic pain, Pope Francis did not attend the prayer service, which included Eucharistic adoration and benediction, and the singing of the "Te Deum," a Latin hymn of thanksgiving from the early Church.

"It might seem forced, almost jarring, to thank God at the end of a year like this, marked by the pandemic," Francis said in his homily.

"We think of families who have lost one or more members, of those who have been sick, of those who have suffered from loneliness, of those who have lost their jobs…" he added. "Sometimes someone asks: what is the point of a tragedy like this?"

The pope said we should not be in a rush to answer this question, because not even God responds to our "most distressing 'whys' by resorting to 'better reasons.'"

"God's response," he stated, "follows the path of the Incarnation, as the Antiphon to the Magnificat will soon sing: 'For the great love with which he loved us, God sent his Son in the flesh of sin.'"

First Vespers was prayed at the Vatican in anticipation of the Jan. 1 Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

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"God is father, 'eternal Father,' and if his Son became man, it is because of the immense compassion of the Father's heart. God is a shepherd, and which shepherd would give up even a single sheep, thinking that in the meantime he has many more left?" the pope continued.

He added: "No, this cynical and ruthless god does not exist. This is not the God whom we 'praise' and 'proclaim Lord.'"

Francis pointed to the example of the compassion of the Good Samaritan as a way to make "sense" of the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic, which he said has had the effect of "arousing compassion in us and provoking attitudes and gestures of closeness, care, solidarity."

Noting that many people have selflessly served others during the difficult year, the pope said "with their daily commitment, animated by love of neighbor, they realized those words of the hymn Te Deum: 'Every day we bless you, we praise your name forever.' Because the blessing and praise that most pleases God is brotherly love."

Those good works "cannot happen without grace, without God's mercy," he explained. "For this we give praise to him, because we believe and know that all the good that is done day by day on earth comes, in the end, from him. And looking to the future that awaits us, we again implore: 'May your mercy always be with us, in you we have hoped.'"