The Ash Wednesday homily given by Pope Benedict XVI—the last we will hear from this pope—demonstrated the pastoral and pontifical priorities of the son of Joseph and Maria Ratzinger—of the priest that seeks to decrease so that Christ may increase.
Pope Benedict began his homily not with himself but with the image of the many “gathered around the tomb of the Apostle Peter.” In doing so he positioned his homily squarely in that particular liturgy. He spoke to those people that were facing that altar, which fittingly for the occasion stands over the tomb of the first pope. Certainly, the Successor of Peter meant to instruct his worldwide flock, but he did so by addressing the individual men, women, and prelates in his presence.
Liturgy is, after all, a great deal about the people around you.
Given that holy place and the words of scripture proclaimed, Pope Benedict could uniquely focus on topics at the center of his theological and pastoral career: the place of the human person and the Church in salvation history; the reality of sin and the need for the Cross and for grace; and the transformative, loving ministry that all who claim Christ as their Lord are called to.
The pontiff structured his final homily around the Ash Wednesday invitation from the Book of Joel: “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning” (2:12). This invitation is not a sentimental one. Pope Benedict made clear—as he has so often—that this plea by the Lord of Hosts is for a (probably painful) reorientation of one’s heart to the will, grace, and glory of God.
Pope Benedict noted that the readings of Ash Wednesday “offer us ideas which, by the grace of God, we are called to transform into a concrete attitude and behavior during Lent.” This is quintessential Ratzinger/Benedict XVI—who has said often that Christianity is not the result of an idea but an encounter with the person of Christ.
The pontiff elaborates by asking his listeners to
[p]lease note the phrase “with all your heart,” which means from the very core of our thoughts and feelings, from the roots of our decisions, choices and actions, with a gesture of total and radical freedom. But is this return to God possible? Yes, because there is a force that does not reside in our hearts, but that emanates from the heart of God and the power of His mercy. The prophet says: “return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment” (v. 13). It is possible to return to the Lord, it is a ‘grace’, because it is the work of God and the fruit of faith that we entrust to His mercy. But this return to God becomes a reality in our lives only when the grace of God penetrates and moves our innermost core, gifting us the power that “rends the heart.”
Here, Benedict reminded us that it is God that offers and initiates our salvation—and this offer calls for a response, and our responses are often lacking. On this point, Pope Benedict spoke bluntly:
Today, in fact, many are ready to “rend their garments” over scandals and injustices—which are of course caused by others—but few seem willing to act according to their own “heart,” their own conscience and their own intentions, by allowing the Lord [to] transform, renew and convert them.
What sounds like despair on the part of the pontiff is instead his perennial warning to a world drunk with the idea that one can define their own truth. In believing that reality is a matter of choice, our individuality becomes isolation and our lives become meaningless.
Thus, Pope Benedict underscored the communal nature of our spiritual journeys—Lenten or otherwise. “[F]aith is necessarily ecclesial,” he said. “And it is important to remember and to live this during Lent: each person must be aware that the penitential journey cannot be faced alone, but together with many brothers and sisters in the Church.”
Likewise, the ecclesial nature of faith must be oriented outward. It must live in the choices and conversations of believers. Here, Pope Benedict’s words resounded with his many urgings to bring about Bl. John Paul II’s call for New Evangelization. In his homily he called it “witnessing to the faith … so that we can reveal the face of the Church.”
And yet—especially on that day of ashes—he reminded his listeners that the face of the Church is often “disfigured,” most especially by division. Thus, it is from Christ (and His Cross) that we are to look for “overcoming individualism and rivalry” so that “those who have distanced themselves from the faith or who are indifferent” can see in the love and unity of Christians the hope that they crave. The pontiff said that
the “return to God with all your heart” in our Lenten journey passes through the Cross, in following Christ on the road to Calvary, to the total gift of self. It is a journey on which each and every day we learn to leave behind our selfishness and our being closed in on ourselves, to make room for God who opens and transforms our hearts.
The beauty of this homily is in how it captured so many of the teachings and exhortations that Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has repeated for decades. We learn much about the man in this homily, especially given his choice to depart from the papal apartments.
Indeed, as the homily closes, Pope Benedict XVI said this:
Our fitness will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory and the more we are aware that the reward of the righteous is God Himself, to be united to Him, here, on a journey of faith, and at the end of life, in the peace light of coming face to face with Him forever (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).
As if to underscore this, after Mass and the kind comments of Cardinal Bertone, when the assembly in St. Peter’s stood and applauded and cried, the Holy Father expressed his sincere gratitude. Then he returned everyone to the liturgy by looking down to the missal and saying “Let us return to prayer.”