Lessons From Pope Benedict’s Funeral
I arrived at the Vatican this morning before dawn, to make sure I got a seat at Benedict's funeral. The Vatican was magical in the cold fog.
As my regular readers know, I deeply loved Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, and wanted to be at his funeral. I left the Catholic Church in 2006, just as he became Pope, and the only lasting regret I had about that was the feeling of abandoning him. What a great Christian father he was. I had to be here to pay my respects. He was a model not only for Catholics, but for all of us who love Jesus Christ, and who want to be more faithful to him.
The funeral mass itself was quite beautiful. I don't know how many people were present in the square -- 60,000? -- but it wasn't like John Paul II's funeral, because Benedict had been out of the papal office for almost a decade. Still, those who were there loved him. Two old Bavarian women sat behind me. They loved him too, but in a way the rest of us can't understand. He was theirs.
We all prayed the rosary, in Latin, before the funeral started. The liturgy was glorious. Eventually, Pope Francis, who was shown being carted out in a wheelchair, gave his homily. Maybe I overreacted, but I thought it was a disgrace. Here is the text:
"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). These were the final words spoken by the Lord on the cross; his last breath, as it were, which summed up what had been his entire life: a ceaseless self-entrustment into the hands of his Father. His were hands of forgiveness and compassion, healing and mercy, anointing and blessing, which led him also to entrust himself into the hands of his brothers and sisters. The Lord, open to the individuals and their stories that he encountered along the way, allowed himself to be shaped by the Father’s will. He shouldered all the consequences and hardships entailed by the Gospel, even to seeing his hands pierced for love. “See my hands,” he says to Thomas (Jn 20:27), and to each of us. Pierced hands that constantly reach out to us, inviting us to recognize the love that God has for us and to believe in it (cf. 1 Jn 4:16).
“Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” This is the invitation and the programme of life that he quietly inspires in us. Like a potter (cf. Is 29:16), he wishes to shape the heart of every pastor, until it is attuned to the heart of Christ Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5). Attuned in grateful devotion, in service to the Lord and to his people, a service born of thanksgiving for a completely gracious gift: “You belong to me … you belong to them,” the Lord whispers, “you are under the protection of my hands. You are under the protection of my heart. Stay in my hands and give me yours.” Here we see the “condescension” and closeness of God, who is ready to entrust himself to the frail hands of his disciples, so that they can feed his people and say with him: Take and eat, take and drink, for this is my body which is given up for you (cf. Lk 22:19).
Attuned in prayerful devotion, a devotion silently shaped and refined amid the challenges and resistance that every pastor must face (cf. 1 Pet 1:6-7) in trusting obedience to the Lord’s command to feed his flock (cf. Jn 21:17 ). Like the Master, a shepherd bears the burden of interceding and the strain of anointing his people, especially in situations where goodness must struggle to prevail and the dignity of our brothers and sisters is threatened (cf. Heb 5:7-9). In the course of this intercession, the Lord quietly bestows the spirit of meekness that is ready to understand, accept, hope and risk, notwithstanding any misunderstandings that might result. It is the source of an unseen and elusive fruitfulness, born of his knowing the One in whom he has placed his trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:12). A trust itself born of prayer and adoration, capable of discerning what is expected of a pastor and shaping his heart and his decisions in accord with God’s good time (cf. Jn 21:18): “Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence.”
Attuned in devotion sustained by the consolation of the Spirit, who always precedes the pastor in his mission. In his passionate effort to communicate the beauty and the joy of the Gospel (cf. Gaudete et Exsultate, 57). In the fruitful witness of all those who, like Mary, in so many ways stand at the foot of the cross. In the painful yet steadfast serenity that neither attacks nor coerces. In the stubborn but patient hope that the Lord will be faithful to his promise, the promise he made to our fathers and to their descendants forever (cf. Lk 1:54-55).
Holding fast to the Lord’s last words and to the witness of his entire life, we too, as an ecclesial community, want to follow in his steps and to commend our brother into the hands of the Father. May those merciful hands find his lamp alight with the oil of the Gospel that he spread and testified to for his entire life (cf. Mt 25:6-7).
At the end of his Pastoral Rule, St. Gregory the Great urged a friend to offer him this spiritual accompaniment: “Amid the shipwreck of the present life, sustain me, I beseech you, by the plank of your prayer, that, since my own weight sinks me down, the hand of your merit will raise me up.” Here we see the awareness of a pastor who cannot carry alone what in truth he could never carry alone, and can thus commend himself to the prayers and the care of the people entrusted to him. God’s faithful people, gathered here, now accompanies and entrusts to him the life of the one who was their pastor. Like the women at the tomb, we too have come with the fragrance of gratitude and the balm of hope, in order to show him once more the love that is undying. We want to do this with the same wisdom, tenderness and devotion that he bestowed upon us over the years. Together, we want to say: “Father, into your hands we commend his spirit.”
Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever!
It was not a bad homily necessarily, so why did I think it was a disgrace?
Because Francis barely mentioned the man we were burying -- only at the end, as if to say goodbye. Francis's predecessor was perhaps the greatest theologian ever to occupy Peter's throne, but of this, Francis said nothing. Joseph Ratzinger was an absolutely essential pillar of the world-historical great papacy of St. John Paul II, but of this, from Francis, nothing.
You don't even have to have liked Ratzinger's theology to nevertheless recognize his significance. This was Francis's opportunity to do so. He refused. He could have delivered this homily for his butler. Compare it to the detailed, joyful Benedict XVI gave at the funeral of John Paul II. Again, I know I am a partisan, but this struck me as an act of disrespect explicable only as an exercise of banked contempt.
Look, i don't have a lot of regard for Francis's papacy, but even I could have found words of praise for Francis in such a situation. And for Benedict, if a Swiss Guard had collared me, an ex-Catholic, and shoved me onto the stage, I could have delivered a homily in praise of that great old Bavarian Christian that would have been true to his towering legacy. Not the sitting Pope, though. No. It could be that Benedict's last act was to reveal the small, bitter, spiteful character of his successor, by the way Francis sent him to the ages. How much this pope must have hated Benedict.
I was nearly in tears, to be honest.
But after the funeral, my spirits were raised by the sight of a Bavarian family there to show their love and respect for their native son. I wish I could go home with these people, and eat at their table:
I mean it. If any of your readers know who this family is, put me in touch with them. They made my spirit soar. I want to reward them for the gift of grace their love for Benedict gave to me this morning, at a low point. I'm at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com.
After the funeral, there were Bavarians in regional costume marching around in a band. God bless them!
"Fifty thousand Krankheits!" I thought, but didn't say. Man, I love those Bavarians.
And then, glory of glories, I met the world's most inspiring Catholic, the great Marco Sermarini, and the Tipi Loschi, there in St. Peter's Square!
So many of the Tipi Loschi were there! I'm telling you, if you could just be around them, your heart for Christ would set aflame. These Catholics bring tears to my eyes with the purity and the joy of their faith. I haven't seen Marco's kids in five years, and man, have they grown. As we talked, Pater Edmund Waldstein, an intellectual leader of the integralist Catholics, came over to introduce himself. I had no idea he was as young as he is! Strangely, because I am neither Catholic nor all that sympathetic to the integralists, I was thrilled to meet Pater Edmund, because I know that whatever our differences, he is a man who loves Jesus, and is doing his best for the Kingdom. We are, somehow, on the same side. And he's a monk! I love monks:
So, what about it? I am so grateful for the privilege of having been here to send off one of the greatest Christians of our time, a man whose life and work has meant a lot to me. I am grieved and angry that Pope Francis showed such coldness and meanspiritedness towards Benedict in his homily -- but not, in fact, surprised. Francis made no reference to Benedict's immense theological legacy, which to me says that he is saying "goodbye to all that," and effectively declaring Year Zero. I feel very bad for my orthodox Catholic friends. I believe the post-Benedict era under Francis will be awful.
Nevertheless, the faith survives among Catholics through groups like the Bavarian families and the Tipi Loschi, and leaders like Marco Sermarini and Pater Edmund. Though I am no longer with them in the Catholic Church, I am with them as a brother in Christ, and I hope and pray that they prevail. We have all gained a powerful intercessor in heaven, I believe, with the passing of Joseph Ratzinger. I give thanks to God for the privilege of being present at the ritual of his homegoing.
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UPDATE: Naturally, in FrancisChurch: