This homily was given on Thursday 28 February 2013, at a Solemn Mass for the Election of a Pope, at St Patrick’s, Soho Square.
What sets our faith apart? Quite simply, it is this: ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’. These are the words of Pope Benedict XVI, now Bishop of Rome Emeritus, in his 2005 encyclical on Christian love, Deus Caritas Est, and in many ways they an insight into his pontificate, and a template for the whole of the Christian life.
Over the past few days certain parts of the press and media have had a field-day with the Church, and as the Cardinals gather in Rome and the conclave begins, to elect a new Pope, we will surely see much more speculation and intrigue appear. The fundamental misunderstanding which seems to be at the heart of these reports is this: however much we try and say otherwise, the world can only really see the Church as an institution and the Pope as a kind-of CEO. For ‘secular culture’, the idea that we are not simply dealing with the appointment of a new President or Prime Minister, is one which is alien to most people. But if we look at the example of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, and even his resignation, we can all find again the true nature of the Church and the essential vocation of the Christian life to which we are all called.
In his writings and preaching, Pope Benedict placed a great emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ. Above all else, he sought to remind us that it is only in a profound friendship with the Lord that we can not only find our own happiness, our own contentment, but become instruments of God’s grace and mercy in and to the world. He reminded us of this by ensuring that every time he celebrated the Mass, he stood looking at the crucifix, meditating on our Lord’s passion, and giving us the chance – as we do at this Mass – to look at the cross, and not simply the priest; to place Christ before ourselves; divinity above humanity. He also reminded us of our need for intimacy with the Lord by gently persuading, through his own example, that Holy Communion should be received kneeling and directly on the tongue, as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disposition: humility of posture, revealing humility of heart.
Saint Paul, in his various epistles, talks a great deal about the need for us to set ourselves aside in favour of Christ. He talks about putting to death the old man (cf. Rom. 6:6), of being clothed in Christ (cf. Rom. 13: 14; Gal. 3: 27). What does this mean in reality? What does it mean to place Christ before ourselves, not just in these outward gestures, but in depths of our hearts and of our lives? It means recognising that we are of supreme value and worth, but only because we are made in the likeness and image of God. It means, too, that we are utterly reliant on God, annihilating ourselves – as some of the spiritual writers say – so that only Christ remains.
In a world where personality cult and personal choice are seen as signs of human freedom, and where popularity and fame are so prized that people go to extraordinary lengths to appear in the public eye for a matter of seconds, this is a seriously countercultural proposition. We are being called in the Christian life, to disappear into Christ, and to become so united with him that no distinction can be made between us and him (cf. Jn 17: 22). In our world of individualism and self-interest, Pope Benedict has sat not as a focus of devotion, but as a lens through which the Church might magnify her glory of God, and through whom we have been able to see God more clearly.
In order for us to achieve this supreme act of selflessness, too, we must have a tangible trust in God. If we are our lives without a care for ourselves, but only for another – for Christ – we must trust that he will never fail us, will never abandon us. In this season of Lent, that fidelity we are looking for is found in the via crucis, the path which the Lord takes, relentlessly, to the cross. Three times he falls, and three times he gets back up, knowing what he faces at the end of his struggle, but still going forward as sign of his love for his children. In the sacrifice of Christ on the cross we find the ultimate reassurance of his trustworthiness, of his loyalty to those with whom he is in a covenantal relationship, signed and sealed in our baptism and confirmation.
That trust of God, that faith, is what the Church now rests in, the Church which is the means by which that ‘intimate bond’ between us and Christ exists (CCC §789). As we enter this period of transition, when the See of Peter is vacant, we are not only called to trust in the Lord that he will send us another shepherd, one that is after his own heart (Jer. 3: 15), but that he will guide and guard his people now. This is a real moment of faith in a Year of Faith, when we are called to recommit ourselves to Christ and trust in the unswerving love he has for his Church.
Over the coming days, then, let us pray earnestly for the Cardinals who will meet to discern the will of the Holy Spirit and so elect a new Pope to be the visible source and foundation of unity in the Church (CCC §882). Let us ask the Lord to be present with them, to guide their hearts into a closer union with his. And let us pray that the one who will succeed our beloved Pope Benedict will have the faith and trust in God to respond. We are all called to live lives of faith and trust in Christ: united to him in the faith of the Church, in our hearts and actions may we be one with Peter and his successors, that we may, with him, say with conviction to the Lord, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt 16:16).