Pope Benedict XVI sprinkles holy water as he blesses ashes during Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 13. The service was expected to be the last large liturgical event of Pope Benedict's papacy. The pope announced Feb. 11 that he will resign at the end of the month. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Wednesday homily given by Pope Benedict XVIthe last we will hear from this
popedemonstrated the pastoral and pontifical priorities of the son of Joseph
and Maria Ratzingerof the priest that seeks to decrease so that Christ may
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.
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 clearas he has so oftenthat 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 XVIwho 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.”
Benedict reminded us that it is God that offers and initiates our salvationand
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 injusticeswhich are of course caused by othersbut 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.
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.
Benedict underscored the communal nature of our spiritual journeysLenten 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.”
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.”
on that day of asheshe 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.
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.”