March 11March 11 Reflections on the Mass of Christian Burial for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (January 5, 2023)

January 5, 2023

Reflections on the Mass of Christian Burial for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

By Daniel Conway (Special to The Criterion)

VATICAN CITY—Thousands are gathered from around the world in St. Peter’s Square this morning, Jan. 5, for the funeral liturgy for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Many more are participating virtually. (See more coverage of the funeral here)

We are here to pray for the repose of the soul of Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). We thank God for the gift of this pope’s life and ministry. We pray that his words and his example will continue to teach, inspire and challenge us long after he has returned to his heavenly home.

I am blessed to be here to witness firsthand this prayerful and loving tribute to a man whose words and example have inspired and challenged me all my adult life.

I’m here on behalf of The Criterion, the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis where I serve as a member of the editorial committee. I have been writing for the weekly newspaper since the mid-1990s, and I am deeply grateful for the many opportunities I have been given through this great Catholic newspaper and its professional, faithful staff.

The weather is cloudy and cool, but there is no rain—yet. I am with the other journalists on risers high above the Bernini columns, looking down on the altar in front of the basilica. I can see the clergy assembled right below us, and I have a clear view of the religious leaders and other dignitaries who have come to honor Pope Benedict.

An hour before the service begins, the entire square is packed. Only the most important dignitaries and those who will concelebrate the funeral Mass with Pope Francis are still to come. Organ music fills the square as does a constant low chatter of people speaking quietly in many different languages.

Occasionally, spontaneous shouts of joy or sung chants erupt from the groups of pilgrims who have traveled many miles to be here this morning. Overhead, Italian military helicopters pass over the square, enforcing the “no-fly zone” established by the Italian government as a security measure.

Security is very tight here, and the carabinieri and other security personnel are strictly enforcing the rules for entrance. Although rain is forecast, I’m told to leave my small umbrella at the checkpoint in a box with hundreds of others and to retrieve it on my way out.

I was issued a press pass thanks to the support I have received from Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, The Criterion’s publisher. I still have to go through security, but my press credentials allow me to enter the Santa Ana portal and climb up the many, many steps to the top of the columns overlooking the piazza di San Pietro where the funeral Mass will soon be celebrated.

Finally, the liturgy is ready to begin. The bells have been tolling for 15 minutes. The choir begins to chant, and the procession emerges from the basilica. The simple wooden coffin, which contains the body of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is in a place of honor just below the outdoor altar in front of the basilica.

Pope Francis arrives in a wheelchair and is seated in front of the altar. The concelebrants follow in procession and reverence the altar. Everyone is now in place. Pope Francis, who is unsteady on his feet, reverences the altar with incense as the choir sings the entrance antiphon—“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.”

The liturgy proceeds with solemnity and simplicity as the former pope requested. It is completely consistent with Joseph Ratzinger’s whole life and teaching that he would want his funeral liturgy to be solemn—focused on God first and foremost, and that he would want it to be simple, an occasion for helping others better understand and enter into the Good News of Jesus Christ. I can hear him saying, “Don’t make this about me. Make it about Jesus and his saving action in the lives of all who can open their hearts and minds to him.”

The first reading from the Book of Isaiah (Is 29:16-19) is read in Spanish and speaks of the Last Day. “The deaf, that day, will hear the words of a book and, after shadow and darkness, the eyes of the blind will see. But the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel” (Is 29:18-19). Ratzinger the theologian would advise us to hear these words with the ears of one who believes in Jesus Christ. He is the Word of the Book of Life, the one who brings light into our world’s darkness. His coming—past, present, and future—is cause for great rejoicing.

The responsorial psalm, sung in Latin, is the familiar Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” We are comforted in our sorrow by the assurance that God watches over us, feeds and guides us, and prepares a place for us “in the Lord’s own house” where we are invited to dwell “forever and ever.” Death has no power over us. We rest in the hands of a loving and merciful God whose goodness and kindness know no bounds.

The second reading, from the First Letter of St. Peter (1 Pt 1:3-9), is proclaimed in English. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a cause of great joy for us. St. Peter tells us, “Even though you may for a short time have to bear being plagued by all sorts of trials” (1 Pt 1:6). We must be tested by fire like gold, and only then will we experience the “praise, glory and honor” (1 Pt 1:7) that will fill us with “a joy so glorious that it cannot be described” (1 Pt 1:8). We who follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ can be sure of the end to which our faith looks forward: the salvation of our souls.

The Gospel verse summarizes the entire teaching of Jesus: “It is my father’s will that whoever sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (Jn 6:40). We see the face of God in the words and actions of his Divine Son. If we come to believe in him, we will be reborn and have life everlasting.

The Gospel reading (Lk 23:39-46) is proclaimed in Latin. It is the wonderful story of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus. One pleads with him, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well.” The other thief rebukes him. “Have you no fear of God at all? You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it; we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:39-41).

Then the man tradition calls “the good thief,” turns to Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). And Jesus replies with words guaranteed to offer hope to all of us sinners: “Indeed, I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). Whoever recognizes the Son of God and believes in him will have eternal life!

As St. Luke describes the scene, “darkness came over the whole land and the veil of the Temple was torn right down the middle” (Lk 23:45). Then Jesus breathed his last and cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).

The homily given by Pope Francis in Italian will be the subject of a separate reflection in this three-part series. Here I simply want to quote the Holy Father’s concluding words:

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!

The liturgy continued in the solemn, simple spirit that is characteristic of the Benedictine spirituality embraced by Joseph Ratzinger when he chose the name Benedict, the father of western monasticism and patronal saint of Europe. With reverence and great love, the power of the Holy Spirit transforms ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, his Real Presence among us.

And we—thousands of us—are privileged to receive this spiritual food from the hands of hundreds of priests who distribute holy Communion at stations throughout the square.

A hushed silence follows the Communion rite. It’s as if we truly have become one body, one blood in Christ—if only for a brief moment. We owe this moment to a man who would refuse to take any credit for it. Instead, he would insist that it is Christ who unites us and then sends us forth to be his disciples. Christ alone has the power to gather together what our selfishness and sin have divided. It is Christ whom we honor in the life and teaching of his faithful servant Benedict.

After Communion, the deceased pope receives his final commendation to the Lord. We pray that the triune God whom he worshiped and served so faithfully will grant him peace and unite him with his earthly body on the last day. We beg the intercession of Mary, who was loved deeply by Joseph Ratzinger since his childhood. We called her as Queen of the Apostles and as the special patron of the people of Rome.

At last, Pope Francis blesses the simple coffin with holy water and with incense as the choir affirms our faith in the resurrection: “I believe that my Redeemer lives.” And we respond: “And on the last day in my flesh, I will seek God my Savior.”

Together, we pray for our brother Benedict one last time and then commend him to God: “May the angels take you in the paradise. May the martyrs come to welcome you on your way and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem. And, with Lazarus, who was poor on Earth, may you have eternal rest.”

There is a profound, emotional pause as Pope Francis places his hand on the coffin and gives his final blessing to the man who was his predecessor as pope and his friend and faithful supporter during his final years. Then the pall bearers carry the coffin into St. Peter’s Basilica for a private burial.

As Pope Benedict is reverently placed in his tomb in the grotto beneath the main floor of the basilica (formerly occupied by the remains of Pope John Paul II before he was canonized a saint), the crowd in St. Peter’s Square erupts with shouts of rejoicing: Santo Subito (“sainthood now”) and signs reading Danke Papst Benedikt (“Thank you, Pope Benedict”) are waved by enthusiastic pilgrims. Above all, echoing throughout this vast piazza are the final words of Pope Francis’ homily:

Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever!
 

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee. He is in Rome and at the Vatican covering Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s funeral. Following is the second of a three-part series he has written about his experience.) †

 

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