A Tribute to Pope Benedict
The following is the sermon preached by Fr. Power at the Mass offered for the repose of the soul of Pope Benedict XVI. It is in a eulogy in three parts: a brief biography, a personal reflection, and a call to fidelity in the Church.
Part I: A Brief Biography
Joseph Ratzinger was born in Bavaria on Holy Saturday, April 16, 1927. He was the third child of Joseph and Maria Ratzinger. His older sister Maria, who never married, later managed his household; his older brother Georg, who was also ordained a priest, became an accomplished choir director. While Pope Benedict often reflected on the happy home in which he was raised, those first chapters of his life were darkened by the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime. His father, a policeman, was a critic of the fascist government. For his views he experienced harassment both in and out of work. He was eventually demoted and transferred to a rural post; the Ratzinger family was forced to move.
When he was 16 years old, young Joseph, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Munich, was drafted into the army. By the grace of God he did not see action. As the Allied Forces advanced, his unit fell apart and he made his way to his family home.
He returned to seminary and was ordained with his brother Georg in 1951 at age 24. A keen intellect, Fr. Ratzinger continued his studies and quickly became a rising star in the world of theology. Some who would disparage him as an ideologue forget that his views were considered progressive during the Second Vatican Council. Among his closest theological collaborators were Henri de Lubac, who was the author of several of the council documents, Louis Boyer, who was a liturgical advisor to Paul VI, and Walter Kasper, who later became the primary theological voice of Pope Francis.
It was because of his reputation as a theologian that Fr. Ratzinger caught the attention of Pope Paul VI and was named archbishop of Munich, but to say that he was simply a theologian would be belittling. He was not just a theologian, he was a teacher: he had a great gift for teaching, and he loved to be in the classroom. He was so admired by his own students that they formed a society dedicated to him and his teachings. This society would meet with their professor annually to discuss with their teacher the important theological issues in the world.
His ministry as a teacher did not stop when he was elected pope. His works are beautiful, inspiring, and, most of all, accessible. While Pope John Paul II is one of the greatest popes in history, his writings can be difficult to read. Pope Francis, likewise, who speaks more with his actions than his writings, makes frequent use of jargon and abstractions. But the writings of Pope Benedict XVI are so accessible that they could easily be read by a middle schooler. And this accessibility does not sacrifice even the slightest bit of theological depth: each paragraph seems to give a “eureka moment” to the reader. Indeed, his three volumes on the life of Jesus will be forever regarded as spiritual classics.
Part II: A Personal Reflection
Many of you know that I had the privilege to serve for Pope Benedict on January 1, 2010 when Bishop Trautman brought the seminarians of the Diocese of Erie to Rome for a pilgrimage. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it was not my first encounter with Pope Benedict and it is not the encounter that I would like to write about.
My first encounter with Pope Benedict was seven months earlier. It was before I had decided I was going to enter seminary. In early 2009 I was finishing my freshman year of college and I had convinced some friends to go with me on a month-long backpacking trip through Europe. I happened to have a free month: the semester was going to end in the first week of May and my summer job would not begin until the second week of June. I had saved enough money, and flights were cheap. Likewise, at 19 years old, one is content to pay €15 euros a night for a bed in a hostel. Lunch was often a hunk of cheese and a loaf of good bread on the steps of some monument or museum. But these are light sacrifices to make for a young student to see the ancient cathedrals of Christendom, to admire the great art of the rennaisance, and to get a taste of adventure. With a single, rather small, backback and an extra pair of shoes, I made my way with friends through Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, arriving in Rome, the Eternal City, for the feast of Pentecost.
Arriving early for Mass, I was able to get an aisle seat in the middle of the massive basilica. Once the organ bellowed and the procession began, we all turned to look to the back of the church. The crowds were so thick it was impossible for me to see the procession coming from the Chapel of the Pietá, but when the crowds in the back erupted in applaus, we knew the Holy Father had entered. I do not normally approve of such outbursts of emotion in Church, but it is hard to respond otherwise to the successor of Peter. He represented Jesus to us.
The mass was beautiful. On his way out, Pope Benedict would periodically go to the left or to the right of the aisle to greet a few lucky pigrims. And, as chance would have it, he came to my section and I grabbed his hand for just a moment.
To non-Catholic ears, our devotion to our leaders may sound idolatrous. But those non-Catholics forget that the early Church treated the apostles in the same way. Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of crowds mobbing the apostles as they tried to get close to those who preached the Gospel to them. While St. Paul was in Ephesus, we hear that the people were trying to touch him with their handkerchiefs, and upon bringing the handkerchiefs home to sick relatives, those relatives would be healed (Acts 19:12). Or we can also recall how the people of Jerusalem would be excited to touch just the shadow of St. Peter (Acts 5:16).
Just as the crowds were eager to be close to the Lord, so was the early Church eager to be close to the apostles. And today, we Catholics are eager to be close to our leaders who represent the Lord Jesus to us.
Part III: A Call to Fidelity in the Church
Pope Benedict, was never confortable with his celebrity status. As a man of silent study and prayer, he did not want fame. Indeed, while he was still a cardinal, he tried to retire several times, longing for the solitude and natural beauty of his native Bavaria. Pope Saint John Paul II, however, did not permit him to leave. It was, thus, both a surprise and a disappointment, when he was chosen by the Holy Spirit to remain in Rome permanently. And instead of changing the office to suit his own personality, he humbly consented to the expectations placed upon the successor of Peter. In humility he sought to fulfill the obligations placed upon him: he sought to courageously be the voice of Christ to the world, to tirelessly fend off the wolves which seek to destroy this flock entrusted to his care, and to faithfully sit at the helm of this ship which we call the Barque of Peter.
The Catholic Church is often described as a barque, a boat, on its way through the tempestuous seas of the world. This one Church - this one body - founded by Jesus, is both visibly united, and spiritually united. Our worldwide unity as Catholics is an incredibly unique thing in the history of the world - and it is a very powerful thing. When asked why we Catholics are so often the target of attacks, I point to our unity: the forces of evil want to divide and conquer. Thus they put in their crosshairs the one united front founded by Jesus and entrusted to the apostles. Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th man entrusted with the keys (Matt 16:19), was attacked unjustly and relentlessly during his papacy and even after he renounced the office as the powers of darkness sought to divide the church and make greater room for the culture of death.
The first major attack came when he delivered a scholarly lecture at the University of Regensburg. He condemned any attempt to evangelize by means of the sword and he acknowledged that some in the Muslim world still use this method. For speaking the truth and defending persecuted Christians, Pope Benedict was harassed by the mainstream media for months.
Another notable attack came during one of his trips to Africa. While speaking to the African Bishops Conference, he reaffirmed the Catholic teaching that the answer to the AIDS crisis will not be found in a wider distribution of condoms by international relief organizations, but rather in a cultural embrace of the importance of chastity and marital fidelity. Unsurprisingly, the media was outraged that the pope would advocate for Christian morals. Fortunately the Harvard School of Public Health came to his defense. According to their research, in the places where health agencies widely distribute condoms, promiscuity is normalized and the AIDS crisis worsens. Likewise, the breakdown of the family contributes further to a deeper entrenchement into poverty. But this unlikely defender did not stop the media from hounding him constantly.
And still today the attacks continue on the successor of Peter. Under Pope Francis the attacks have taken on a different tone, but the strategy remains the same: the powers of evil are seeking to divide the Church at all costs. As we say farewell to this spiritual father of ours, the only way we can appropriately honor his memory is by continuing to defend this Church to which he dedicated his life - this Church established by Christ.