Homily for the Requiem Mass for the Departed Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, 04 Jan 2023, Mt 11:25-30
I imagine what it must have been like for Joseph Ratzinger when he was elected to the papacy in 2005, at the age of 78.
He had spent the first 26 years of his priestly life as a teacher, an intellectual, a professor of theology. With hardly any pastoral background, he was immediately appointed to head his home diocese in Freising Munich at the age of 50. After just five years of pastoral leadership as archbishop, he was appointed to lead the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith for almost 23 years, acting as Pope John Paul II’s watchdog of orthodoxy. All he wanted to do after 49 years of academic life and five years of pastoral leadership was to retire and work quietly in the Vatican Archives.
And so you can imagine what it must have been like, after the death of Pope John Paul II, when he was elected to serve as Universal Pastor for the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 78! He must have really felt burdened by the responsibility. I remember feeling what he felt when he gave a brief speech after he was elected Pope in 2005:
He said, “Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the Cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord. The fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with insufficient instruments comforts me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers. In the joy of the Risen Lord, confident of his unfailing help, let us move forward. The Lord will help us, and Mary, His Most Holy Mother, will be on our side. Thank you.”
I had the chance of visiting him in 2007, as a young bishop appointed by him the year before that, 2006. I was struck that just after two years of papacy, he seemed to have aged very fast; he looked so stooped like he was carrying the whole world on his shoulders. And yet he smiled warmly at us and looked into our eyes with his piercing eyes and spoke to us with a soft and gentle voice in English with a thick German accent.
For many centuries before him, all the other Popes had served for life (meaning, until death). And so his resignation in 2013 came as a shock to us. But somehow, it did not really surprise me. The fact that he had still managed to carry the burden of the papal office for eight years was already in itself amazing. Imagine, the last Pope to resign voluntarily before him was Pope Celestine V (1294)!
I could not have found a Gospel reading more appropriate for this Requiem Mass in honor of Pope Benedict XVI than the text from Matthew 11, where the Lord says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
I am inclined to believe that Joseph Ratzinger drew a great comfort and inspiration from this text. He could have refused the burden of the papacy when it was offered to him in 2005. It could have been kept secret and the cardinals would have simply come up with a new round of ballotting. But he took it, and still carried it for eight years. During those years of his papacy, from a fierce-looking guardian of orthodoxy, Benedict metamorphosed into a gentle, childlike soul.
The gift of office taught him to smile and to relearn the role of a universal pastor from being an intellectual for almost 49 years. I think it was the first few lines of Matthew 11 that kept him going. The verse that says, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”
That became obvious to me when, in the first years of his papacy, his favorite topic in his papal audiences was “Friendship with Jesus Christ.” Suddenly, he was no longer speaking like an academic. Among the most memorable lines spoken by him in an audience, the most frequently quoted ones were those that he said at the inauguration of his pontificate. Citing John Paul II’s well-known words, “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!”
Benedict XVI said: “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to Him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful, and great. No! Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. … When we give ourselves to Him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.”
From then on, “Friendship with Jesus Christ” became a frequent theme of his preaching. He insisted that everything depended on this intimate friendship.
He also said: “We are all called to open ourselves to this friendship with God … speaking to Him as to a friend, the only One who can make the world both good and happy … That all we have to do is put ourselves at His disposal … is an extremely important message. It is a message that helps to overcome what can be considered the great temptation of our time: the claim, that after the Big Bang, God withdrew from history.”
The last years of the life of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI can be accurately described by the words the resurrected Jesus had said to St. Peter in John 21: “…when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He gave his hand with full trust in Jesus, his friend. Like Peter whose office he had succeeded, he had remained firm in his answer to the question “Do you love me?”
“Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”
Those were also the last words Pope Benedict uttered on his bed before he breathed his last: “Jesus, ich liebe dich.” (Jesus, I love you.)
We commend Joseph Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict XVI to the Lord who has taken him by the hand and led him to where he had actually always desired to go. May he rest in peace. Amen.
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