Feast of the Chair of St. Peter & Diocesan Mass in Thanksgiving for Pope Benedict XVI’s ministry
22 February 2013
This evening during this Mass we pray especially for Pope Benedict XVI. On Thursday we shall cease to do so, as his name will no longer be mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer of every Mass. This evening, in circumstances which are so remarkable, we thank God for Pope Benedict's years of service to the Apostolic See as our Holy Father.
I must confess great sadness at this moment. Pope Benedict is an outstanding teacher of our faith and a great guide to the role of faith in our complex world. I will greatly miss his presence as our Pope.
Let me reflect for a few moments on his leadership as our Pope especially as a great theologian and a marvellous preacher.
He is a theologian of the Second Vatican Council. From the beginning of his Pontificate to almost its last words, he presented the Council to us and sought to unfold its true meaning. In December 2005, in an address which gave the shape of his Pontificate, he reminded us that the Council was misunderstood if thought of as a moment of radical change in the Church. It was not to be understood according to such an interpretation, such an hermeneutic, he said. Then last week, at the very end of his ministry, he highlighted another mistaken interpretation of the Vatican Council, one so consistently given by commentators, that it was simply a Council of a power struggle between the Church's different strands, a hermeneutic of power. Rather, going back to that early, defining speech, Pope Benedict told us how to understand the Council, not with a hermeneutic of continuity, as some have liked to say, but with 'an hermeneutic of renewal in continuity', to use his exact phrase. This sense of ongoing renewal within the Church, in continuity with its great traditions, is the correct way to continue the work of the Council. This he teaches us afresh in this Year of Faith, when we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Council itself.
Last week he illustrated again what that meant: that we understand the Church not solely as the People of God, but as the people of God formed in Christ, formed as the Body of Christ, thus understanding ourselves in a truly Trinitarian manner, called by the Father, formed into the Son and animated by the Holy Spirit. In this way he taught us again not to think of the Church as an institution, or even as a human community but rather as a living organism, one 'that enters my soul' and of which each of us is a constitutive part.
Last week, Pope Benedict reminded us, in this same vein, that liturgical reform always gives priority to the worship of God, in which all participate in a radical manner. He rejoiced again in the new comprehensibility of the liturgy which is, as he said, 'no longer locked in an unknown and unspoken language.....but, thanks be to God, in one's mother tongue ' yet without trivialising the liturgical texts, which require reflection and even study.
He spoke of collegiality, that profound understanding of the fellowship of bishops in the Church, wrongly presented as a struggle between the centre and the local. True collegiality is shaped by the fact of faith that together bishops are the successors of the Apostles and yet the Bishop of Rome alone has a specific succession: that of being the successor of St Peter. This alone is the continuing basis for 'renewal in continuity.'
He urged us also to recall and refresh our mission in society: to be responsible for shaping our society, for its future, drawing always on the true hope that comes from Christ: a promise of future glory in a world of enduring uncertainty. He urged us yet again to the disciplines of genuine dialogue, dialogue based on two key principles: the acknowledgement and respect for difference and diversity (rather than a fear of difference which seems so pervasive today) and our faith in the uniqueness of Christ and the objective reality of the Word of God to guide us on this pilgrimage.
This theologian of the Council who became Pope has always been the best of teachers and we shall miss him, but not forget his words.
As a preacher, too, Pope Benedict has given us so much. So often his preaching has opened a window for us onto the Word of God and the mysteries of faith.
I recall well going to speak with the Holy Father in early July 2010, shortly before his visit to us. I asked if he would preach to us, here in the Cathedral, about the Precious Blood of Our Lord. 'Ah', he said, 'that is not easy. Today the image of blood is so easily misunderstood. I must think about it.'
Well of course he did and so gave us a most outstanding homily in which he put before us, and I quote, 'the unity between Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, the Eucharistic sacrifice which he has given to his Church and his Eternal Priesthood, whereby, seated at the right hand of the Father, he makes unceasing intercessions for us, the members of his mystical body.'
The Precious Blood, shed for us on the cross; the Precious Blood, poured out for us in the Mass and the power of that Precious Blood in the prayer of Christ before His Father.
Taking each dimension in turn, he then opened for us not only the uniqueness of Christ but also our way of participation in the mystery of his Precious Blood right down to these marvellous words:
'Here the great crucifix which towers above us serves as a reminder that Christ, our eternal high priest, daily unites our own sacrifices, our own sufferings, our own needs, hopes and aspirations, to the infinite merits of his sacrifice. Through him, with him and in him, we lift up our own bodies as a sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.’ (cf Rom 12.1)
In this way, he taught us, we can become, in the Church and in our society, 'witnesses of the beauty of holiness, witnesses of the splendour of truth, witnesses of the joy and freedom born of a living relationship with Christ.'
This is the clarity of preaching we shall miss. Pope Benedict has always directed those who attend to him to the very core of our faith, in its simplicity and grandeur, in its beauty and transforming quality.
For me the abiding and most powerful image of Pope Benedict will always be that of him in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in Hyde Park. There he taught us all that is essential about our faith and our life as followers of Christ. We find our home before the Lord, we live in his presence, we trust in his love. We offer ourselves in prayer to him. As one mother wrote to me after that unforgettable evening, 'My teenage sons learned more about prayer in those fifteen minutes than in all the years of their young lives.'
On Thursday evening the Chair of Peter, which Feast we celebrate today, will become vacant. We know what we must do. As in Hyde Park we entrust ourselves and the Church to our Blessed Lord and ask for a new Pontiff, one who will continue to direct us to the heart of the Gospel in all its simplicity and magnitude. And we promise never to forget, in our prayers, Pope Benedict, Joseph Ratzinger, in his life of prayer, rest and reflection. May the Lord bless him and preserve him and may the Lord continue to guide his Holy Church. Amen.
Archbishop of Westminster