January 20, 2023

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

Funeral Mass offers Pope Benedict an appropriate, heartfelt farewell

(En Espanol)

Pope Francis’ homily for the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI did not address the life and works of Joseph Ratzinger. Instead, his homily focused on the readings specially chosen for this Mass of Christian Burial.

By preaching on the Scriptures, the Holy Father was doing what every homilist is supposed to do. What’s more, he was honoring the wishes of his friend and predecessor, Pope Benedict, by keeping the service “solemn and simple” and by refraining from excessive praise of the deceased.

In fact, since the former pope returned to the Lord on Dec. 31, 2022, there has been an endless stream of comments and analysis from many different sources, including Pope Francis. No aspect of Joseph Ratzinger’s life and ministry has been overlooked in the wake of his death.

What was needed during the Mass of Christian Burial in St. Peter’s Square on Jan. 5 was not more commentary, analysis or even praise. What was needed, and what Pope Francis provided, was a reverent reflection on the meaning of God’s word proclaimed in our hearing as we gathered to commend our brother Benedict to the Lord he loved, and longed for, his whole life.

Pope Francis began his homily by recalling the words of Jesus from his cross:

“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.

Do these words tell us anything about the life and ministry of Pope Benedict? Anyone who has read his books, encyclicals, prayers and homilies would have to agree that his only desire was to help us better understand and embrace what these final words of Jesus mean for us and for all humanity.

Continuing to comment on the readings, Pope Francis said:

“Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” This is the invitation and the program of life that [Jesus] quietly inspires in us. Like a potter [Is 29:16], he wishes to shape the heart of every pastor, until it is attuned to the heart of Christ Jesus [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.”

Surely, Pope Benedict would agree. His heart was carefully attuned to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and he viewed the service that he was called to provide as a priest, a professor, a bishop and as a pope (active and retired) as “a completely gracious gift” to be cared for and shared as a stewardship responsibility for which he would be held accountable on the Last Day.

“Holding fast to the Lord’s last words and to the witness of his entire life,” Pope Francis said, “we too, as an ecclesial community, want to follow in his steps and to commend our brother into the hands of the Father.” We want to acknowledge all the many ways that Joseph Ratzinger sought to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and, ultimately, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, to hand himself over to the Father.

Toward the end of his homily, Pope Francis spoke to the occasion that brought thousands of people together for this Mass of Christian Burial:

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.”

And in conclusion, the Holy Father addressed his brother directly:

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

Pope Benedict received at the hands of his successor in the Chair of St. Peter a most appropriate and heartfelt farewell. May he assume his rightful place among the communion of saints. Now and forever. Amen.

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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