Homily of Archbishop Martin for Mass of thanksgiving for ministry of Pope Benedict XVI

28 Feb 2013

 Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for Mass of thanksgiving for ministry of Pope Benedict XVI, Pro-Cathedral, Dublin

“We have come to give thanks to God for the ministry of Pope Benedict XVI on this evening as he freely stands down from the exercise of his ministry after eight year as pastor of the universal Church.    Each of us has his or her personal memories and reflections on that ministry.  I am very pleased that the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, is with us this evening.  Both he and I have many personal memories of Pope Benedict: memories of a reserved, kind and thoughtful man, a scholarly, perceptive and contemplative theologian, a truly holy man and a mystic who loved the Church and who served the Church with total dedication.  Serving the Church was an ideal that was with him even from his childhood days, fostered in his family and the traditions of piety of his native Bavaria.   Serving and loving the Church was the leitmotiv of his ministry as a priest and theologian, as a Bishop and a Cardinal in the Roman Curia and as Pope.

Pope Benedict was a very reserved and private man.  He spoke yesterday at his final General Audience in Saint Peter’s Square about how on becoming Pope any sense of privacy was taken from him.  The publicity which surrounded his life was not an easy thing for him.   But he responded to this challenge which went against his natural tendency through recognising it as self-giving for Christ’s sake.

He was uneasy at large gatherings or at audiences when young people would sing out his name.  I remember only months after his election at World Youth Day in Cologne when, to the surprise of many, he changed the character of the gathering from one of noisy enthusiasm, to one where he fostered silence and recollection as over one million young people prayed in complete silence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

Pope Benedict was not one who wished to attract attention to himself.   This is certainly something which gave him the courage, the inner freedom and the inspiration to make the historical decision to freely stand down from his ministry as he recognised that his physical and mental powers were no longer sufficiently strong to continue the onerous task of guiding the universal Church.  It was for him not an easy decision.  It was a decision which was the fruit of much prayer.  Love of the Church involves the courage of being able to take difficult and radical decisions even if they are anguished ones.   At the centre of his mission as Pope was the clear awareness, as he said on Wednesday, that the Church was not his – as it is not ours – but the Church belongs to Jesus Christ and that it is the presence of Jesus Christ in his Church which is the guarantee of it flourishing in whatever the circumstances.

We do not create the Church; we receive it as a gift.  We should not look at the Church as an institution to be managed, but a Church to be loved and we show that love not just in the style of life we lead as individuals but also in a true ecclesial lifestyle.

One can only imagine the pain that the Pope experienced at the presence of scandals at various levels in the Church.  I personally witnessed his abhorrence at the scandals that struck the Church in Ireland and his revulsion at what had happened to victims and that this should have taken place in the Church of Christ.

Yesterday, he spoke of encountering during his pontificate troubled waters, with hostile head winds leaving the impression, as the Apostles had at the lake of Galilee, that Jesus was sleeping and indifferent. On the evening of the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, an evening for celebration, he shocked those listening by noting that “even in the Lord’s field there is discord, that even in the net of Peter we find bad fish, that human weakness is present even in the Church, that the ship of the church journeys in the face of an opposing wind, amid storms that threaten the ship. And sometimes we have thought that ‘the Lord is asleep and has forgotten us”’.

But on that occasion and again yesterday he immediately noted that this is only one part of his experience:  “We have also been made to experience the presence of the Lord, the gifts of his goodness and strength”.

Pope Benedict’s love for the Church was rooted in his fundamental love for Jesus Christ.  In the opening paragraph of his first encyclical he reminded us, with a phrase he repeated many times that: “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, #1).

Knowing Jesus means that we speak about him and speak about him as the source of our dignity.  In his first homily as Pope he challenged the Church to recall that “Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him”.

That fascination with the person of Jesus inspired Pope Benedict in the short space of eight years to publish three books on Jesus of Nazareth and about the ability of all of us to encounter the real Jesus.  He described this painstaking scholarly work as part of his “personal search for the face of the Lord”.   While commentators and pundits speculate about what he will wear and what he might or might not do in the years to come, there is one thing that is certain.  He will continue through his prayer and contemplation and reflection on this “personal search for the face of the Lord” and may through writing help us on the same path which is a path of a life time.

Pope Benedict was a scholar.  His writing output was enormous.  He had an incredible ability to bring thoughts together in synthesis but also to render them accessible not just to scholars but to the entire Church.     On his visits to Roman parishes he often spoke without any notes explaining the Gospel of the day with utter simplicity.  I personally remember his stunningly deep homilies on Holy Thursday and Good Friday in the Vatican’s Teutonic College where I lived for many years.

His theology was not a theology of retreat from the world.  Both as Professor and as Pope he was a pioneering voice in the dialogue between faith and culture.   He was not afraid to enter into dialogue with philosophers and political leaders of different viewpoints.  The Gospel we have heard is a sort of icon of what such dialogue is about.   Dialogue is not just acquiescing in difference.  There are certain aspects of the message of Jesus and of the nature of the Church and the meaning of life which we can only answer when we move go beyond modern thought and the philosophy of the day.  Still today, in the early Church , the message of the resurrection will be scoffed at by some (Acts 17) or be looked, as Saint Paul said of the Greeks, as “folly”.  Our Gospel reading notes how if one is trapped in a particular life style even someone rising from the dead would not be enough to convince us out of our doubt and darkness.   We will only fathom the message of Jesus and the nature of the Church and the meaning of life when we turn to the one who rose from the dead, Jesus Christ: the answer to our seeking.

Pope Benedict serenely calls on all of us to pray for him and to pray for the new Pope.  He will now continue to serve the Church through prayer and contemplation.  We thank God for the gifts that he brought to the Church and we pray that his successor will be inspired to address with renewed vigour the challenges, new and old, that open out in our world.