Below is the homily delivered by the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, on Sunday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington. It was part of a Mass, given in honor of Pope Benedict, that was among the key official events in the United States in the run-up to a meeting of the cardinals to pick a successor to Benedict. It was broadcast live on EWTN, a Catholic television network.
Today the Church in her Sunday liturgy continues our Lenten pilgrimage with the Second Sunday of Lent. Later today in this Basilica we will have the Rite of Election, receiving the public declaration of those who together with 1,200 others from across this archdiocese are declaring their intention to receive the Easter Sacraments – baptism, confirmation and Eucharist – at the Easter Vigil Mass five weeks from now.
It is in the context of our faith journey – the journey that each of us makes through life guided by the light of Christ – that we come together today in an act of faith and a profession of love. Our faith is directed to Christ who established his Church on Peter, whom he named the Rock, and our love to the Chief Shepherd of the Church who exercises that ministry today and who has recently announced his decision to step aside from those weighty responsibilities.
The news that Pope Benedict XVI plans to resign less than a week from today came to all of us as a surprise and in some way a shock because this is the first time in modern history that this has happened. But now that some of the startling quality of this announcement has subsided, we are able to recognize that our Holy Father’s action speaks to us of his greatness and his ability to recognize the needs of the Church Universal today and his own estimation of the demands of the Papal office.
Now that some of the dust has settled, we are able clearly to see the courage, humility and honesty of our Holy Father that would lead him to say that it would be better that someone with more energy serve as Chief Shepherd of the Church at this time.
Pope Benedict tells us that he prayed over this decision and that in his conscience opened before God he is at peace. While many of us would have said, “Holy Father, don’t go,” he is clearly hearing a stronger and more powerful voice.
His actions provide us an opportunity to reflect not only on the role of Peter, but how that ministry is exercised today.
Papal service in our day, more than ever, includes a ministry of presence. It often involves extensive travel around the world to visit and pray with the faithful. The Petrine Office is exercised today in an age of instantaneous communication, where social media dominate how we relate to one another, and how, therefore, the voice of Peter must be articulated to be heard.
In his more than seven-year Pontificate, Pope Benedict has offered us guidance and example in both of these challenging areas through which the office of Peter, the rock on which Christ built his Church, and the teaching voice of the apostolic tradition can be proclaimed.
Of his pastoral ministry, we have had a first-hand experience. Five years ago the Archdiocese of Washington welcomed Pope Benedict XVI on his historic Apostolic Visit. At the Papal Mass at Nationals Park, nearly 50,000 people filled the new stadium from throughout our metropolitan area and from across the country. We looked to him then – as we do today – as we will to his successor – for renewed inspiration to continue the challenge to make all things new in Christ, our hope.
During that 2008 pastoral visit, Pope Benedict XVI said he had come “as a witness to Christ our hope,” and he encouraged the nation’s Catholics to take the theme of the papal visit to heart, and be a source of Christ’s love and hope to their families, their communities, their nation and their world.
Already during his visit five years ago, Pope Benedict highlighted what has become the theme of his Pontificate – the New Evangelization. He has focused the mission of the Church Universal on the task of the New Evangelization which he points out is not one specific action or activity of the Church, but rather a way of seeing the whole range of activities carried on by the Church to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.
To underscore the importance of this action, our Holy Father convoked in October of last year a gathering of bishops from around the world to reflect on the theme, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” Pope Benedict XVI summoned the entire Church to the timely and timeless task of the New Evangelization. He called us to “repropose the perennial truth of Christ’s Gospel.” It was precisely in the context of the New Evangelization and at the opening Mass for the synod that the pope proclaimed a Year of Faith.
To help us along the path of the New Evangelization, Pope Benedict began with his first encyclical letter, God is Love (Deus Caritas Est), followed by his encyclical letter, On Christian Hope (Spe Salvi), and then by his encyclical letter Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate). With these were two apostolic exhortations, The Sacrament of Charity (Sacramentum Caritatis) and the Word of God (Verbum Domini).
In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est (God is Love), he taught us that we are identified in our love of God that reflects God’s love for us, and in our love of neighbor that should reflect our love for God.
Then in his encyclical Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope) the Holy Father emphasized the theme of his 2008 pastoral visit to the United States, that for Christians, Christ is the source of our hope, and embracing the truth of the Gospel as handed down to us through the Church is how we can find true freedom and meaning in life. In today’s materialistic and secular world, this knowledge that Christ is our hope can help us review our lives and priorities, and take stock of what is truly important.
The Holy Father concluded his homily at Nationals Park by saying, “Those who have hope must live different lives! (cf. ‘Spe Salvi,’ 2).
At that Mass at Nationals Park in Washington, the Holy Father had seen the face of the Church of our United States, in all its diversity, united in faith, and he had confirmed us in the faith of the Apostles and called on us to continue the work of bringing Christ’s Gospel to our country and to our world. After that Mass, Pope Benedict declared, “That liturgy was a true prayer!”
The pope has spent much of his energy writing and preaching, in encyclicals, letters, messages, homilies and talks that eventually numbered more than a thousand.
His three-volume work, “Jesus of Nazareth,” published between 2007 and 2012 in multiple languages, emphasized that Christ must be understood as the Son of God on a divine mission, not as a mere moralist or social reformer.
Our Holy Father gave much of his time to meeting with bishops from around the world when they made “ad liminia’ visits to the Vatican to report on their dioceses. It was at just such a visit with the bishops of this Archdiocese and region that he gave his memorable address on the need to defend religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
His 2009 letter to bishops also summarized what he saw as his main mission as the successor of Peter: “In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God.”
Some of the Pope Benedict’s most quoted statements came when he applied simple Gospel values to social issues such as the protection of human life, the environment and economics.
As we thank God for the blessing of Benedict XVI, we also reaffirm our faith in the office of Saint Peter – the rock of Saint Peter.
When Simon came to place his faith in Jesus, the Lord conferred on him a new sacred role and identity, giving him a new name, Peter, which means “rock.” Jesus promised Peter that he would be the rock or foundation on which he, Jesus, would build his Church and neither the debilitating force of time nor even death itself would extend its power over the Church. To Peter, the rock, Jesus would give the keys to the kingdom – the authority to bind and loose, the authorization to lead his flock and to do so in the name and by the power of Christ (Mt 16:17-19).
Around the magnificent and imposing Michelangelo dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, hundreds of feet in the air above the place where tradition and excavation tell us Peter was buried, is the Latin inscription in letters six feet high proclaiming this citation from the Gospel of Saint Matthew. “You are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church…” (cf Mt 16:18).
The Pope – every Pope – succeeds to the role of Peter and the awesome responsibility of teaching the faith and providing pastoral leadership for the Church Universal.
The fulfillment of the Petrine promise is recorded, as well, in the Gospels. John tells us how after the Resurrection, Jesus confirmed Peter in the role of shepherd and leader of his flock: “‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him… ‘Feed my sheep’” (Jn 21:15, 17).
The shepherding role conferred on Peter is that of leading and guiding the Church. It is always to Peter as head of the College of Apostles and to his successors as head of the College of Bishops that the Church looks for guidance, instruction, teaching and leadership.
While the face, personality and style change from pontificate to pontificate, the message does not. God chooses different people to be the instrument of the one, same, unchanging Gospel.
When asked what might be the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, two things come quickly to mind. The task of the New Evangelization will always bear the mark of this Pope. In a way, he made it the hallmark of his Pontificate. Not only did he define it as the re-proposing of the Gospel to the people of our age and culture, but he told us it consists of the ordinary ongoing catechesis that is the formation of every believer, the outreach to those who have never heard of Christ, and the special effort to touch those who have been baptized and have fallen away from the practice of the faith.
The idea that God is disappearing from the human horizon and that humanity is losing its bearings with “evident destructive effects” was a theme Pope Benedict saw as common ground for dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
He challenged us to renew our own faith so that we would find renewed confidence in the truth of God’s Word and then be able to share it with others. Thus he called for a Year of Faith that began in the context of the Synod for the New Evangelization and will end with a celebration of the feast of Christ the King. Part of the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI will be his insistence that we renew our own embrace of the faith – a faith enunciated in the creed – so that we can share it with others.
Pope Benedict XVI will also be remembered, I believe, for his enduring commitment to the compatibility and complementarity of faith and reason as we make our way through life, blessed with both the gift of our intellect and a capability to hear also the revelation of God.
Truth was always uppermost in the search for the meaning of life as described by our Holy Father. But for him the horizon of truth is not limited to human reason alone. The revelation that comes to us as God breaks the silence surrounding us and complements, enhances and enriches what by reason alone we grasp.
Today, then, our hearts are filled with both faith and love. We renew our faith in the continuing presence of Christ, our Lord and teacher, in the teaching office symbolized by the Chair of Peter, and we also have hearts filled with love for the person who for nearly eight years has sat in that chair – Pope Benedict XVI.
While he will step aside from that chair, while he may leave his Petrine office, he will never leave our hearts which are filled with respect, admiration and love for him.
So we say today, as we celebrate the ministry of Saint Peter the Apostle, thank you Pope Benedict for your guidance, for your leadership, for your pastoral love.
We pray, God bless Benedict XVI.