February 25, 2011

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Pope’s pastoral service deserves our prayerful support

This week, we celebrated “The Chair of Peter, Apostle.” It is a feast that has been celebrated by the Church as early as the mid-fourth century.

We are told that it has its roots in the commemoration of deceased relatives and friends celebrated in Rome between Feb. 13 and Feb. 22.

At the memorial service, a chair (cathedra) was left empty for particular deceased persons.

Since the actual date of St. Peter’s death was unknown, it was observed on Feb. 22. Eventually, it came to be a celebration of Peter’s pastoral responsibility for the Church of Rome.

The symbol of the empty chair became more meaningful as a pastoral symbol of the first bishop of Rome. Today, the chair of every bishop is called a cathedra, and is a symbol of the teaching role and authority of the episcopacy.

Over the years, our celebration of the pastorate of St. Peter, the Chair of Peter, also becomes a symbol of the cathedra of Peter’s successors, presently that of Pope Benedict XVI. It is appropriate that we remember our Holy Father on this feast day. The pope’s pastoral service deserves our prayerful support.

In recent Church history, we have been blessed by the holiness of succeeding popes.

I think of Pope John Paul II, who will be beatified on May 1. His holiness has been acclaimed from the earliest days of his pontificate. Who doesn’t recall seeing huge banners in the crowds at his funeral proclaiming “Santo subito!” (“Sainthood now!”).

The sanctity of recent popes has been recognized, including St. Pius X, Blessed Pope John XXIII and Blessed Pope Pius IX.

I will certainly have a personal devotion to Blessed Pope John Paul II because he called me to be a bishop. He was a mentor from the early days of my ministry as a bishop. It is a special privilege to say that I met a saint numerous times on my visits to Rome.

It is not my prerogative to name a pope to the rolls of the saints, but I am convinced that—in his simplicity, humility and fidelity to the truth in charity—the current Holy Father will some day follow in the path of his predecessor.

I can’t imagine many cardinals who could have picked up the mantle of the pontificate after Pope John Paul II then carry it with such dignity and serenity.

Pope Benedict XVI is a pre-eminent teacher. He was so in fraternity with Pope John Paul II in truly trying times. He served faithfully, silently and generously. He suffered a great deal in that role, but without complaint. He did not want to succeed Pope John Paul II, but did so with grace.

Pope Benedict wanted to retire at age 75, but Pope John Paul asked him to remain at his side for the duration of his pontificate. I think it must have been very difficult for Cardinal Ratzinger to preside at the funeral of his friend and colleague of so many years. He did so with dignity.

I had the opportunity to meet with Cardinal Ratzinger concerning the implementation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the United States. I was surprised by his deferential manner with someone of lesser office. He was personally very kind and hospitable. It pained me to see how he was so misrepresented in the media. I believe his true personal traits are apparent in his papacy.

It has been Pope Benedict’s challenge to deal with the awful scandal of clerical sex abuse. It is obvious that he is mortified, and suffers with the victims of abuse. It is one of the heavy crosses of his papacy, and I believe he carries it credibly and with nobility.

I suspect that Pope Benedict’s legacy may be credited with leading the world through the needed dialogue with non-Christian religions, and the tensions between conflicting world cultures. He is making dramatic gestures of interfaith dialogue that few people would attempt or be able to attempt.

Folks often remark to me their surprise at the Holy Father’s stamina for a man of his age. He comes across as a man at peace with God, and who knows the God of whom he speaks.

We have a responsibility to pray for the Holy Father, not only because he needs our prayerful support, but also because he is our spiritual Father. He goes about his pastoral ministry—which he did not seek—and does so without complaint. He has a generous heart, and serves the Church willingly and courageously.

For sure, Pope Benedict does not need accolades from me, but I have great admiration for this holy man. I owe him my personal respect and support. Please pray with me for our Holy Father. †

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