It is a rare privilege to celebrate the dedication of the basilica of Saint John Lateran on a Sunday, and so it is perhaps a good opportunity for us to reflect on two characteristics presented to us in the liturgical texts appointed for this feast. First, if we look at the title given to today, we see that we are here to commemorate the dedication of a building. We know that the word ‘church’ properly designates not simply an architectural edifice, but the company of believers who are incorporated into the life of Christ through the sacrament of baptism. In the Old Testament the word ekklesia is frequently used to describe a gathering of God’s chosen people above all, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, ‘for their assembly on Mount Sinai where Israel received the Law and was established by God as his holy people’ (CCC 751). We take that word and apply it in a similar sense when we speak about ‘ecclesiastical institutions’ or ‘ecclesial communities’, and so we have the idea of the Church as a convocation of people in the service of God.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, spoke these words to the College of Cardinals following his election as the 265th Successor of Saint Peter, Bishop of Rome, and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church:
Let us never give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day. Do not give in to pessimism and discouragement. We have the firm certainty that the Holy Spirit gives the Church with His mighty breath, the courage to persevere and also to seek new methods of evangelization, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The Christian truth is attractive and persuasive because it responds to the deep needs of human existence, convincingly announcing that Chirst is the only Saviour of the whole person and of all persons. This announcement is as valid today as it was at the beginning of Christianity when there was a great missionary expansion of the Gospel.
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.
Bishop Mark Davies, at a Mass for thanksgiving for Pope Benedict XVI:
A chorus of voices in the days ahead will sound a discordant note insisting we put aside their witness and abandon the sound teaching we have received. I have heard such voices at the time of every Conclave of my own life-time. How different the final, faith-filled note of Pope Benedict’s pontificate when he told the crowds in Rome yesterday that he had felt “like St Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the sea of Galilee” in sunshine and in storm. “I always knew,” Pope Benedict said, “the Lord is in the boat, that the boat is not mine, not ours, but His – and He shall not let her sink.” (General Audience, 27 February 2013). Such words of faith spoken to the many thousands who filled St Peter’s Square in the late winter sunshine were interpreted by some media outlets as parting-shots amid power struggles and bitter in-fighting. We will hear much of this in the days ahead.
The Church, it seems, has always been in crisis from the pages of the New Testament until today insofar as she has struggled with human sin and failures. Scandals have too often presented to the world not the radiant face of Christ but the ugly face of sin: your sins and mine. It is always the same crisis we face, a crisis of saints: the need of those men and women outstanding in holiness by which the Church is genuinely renewed in every generation. How foolish it would be to assume that a change of administration rather than a change of heart would bring about this only true reform.
John Allen has pointed out that Pope Benedict’s last address to the College of Cardinals this morning made direct reference to the writings of the twentieth century theologian, Romano Guardini. On a number of occasions Benedict XVI has included Guardini’s work in his own, not least in the title of his book as Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, which is also the title of one of Guardini’s central works. This morning, though, it was Guardini’s emphasis on the mystical nature of the Church (no doubt influenced as much by Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis as by Lumen Gentium) which the Pope chose to propose.
In her recent article, The Pope and the Philistines, Australian theologian Tracey Rowland reflected on the way in which Pope Benedict – negatively portrayed as a conservative, by some – has in fact sought to distance himself from the ‘administrative machinery’ of the Church. Instead, as this week, proposing the Church as ‘a living reality’, or ‘a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ’ (General Audience, 27 February 2013). Emphasising not the structure the world sees, but the person into whom the baptised are incorporated.
Professor Rowland reminds us that in Called to Communion, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, ‘The more administrative machinery we construct […] the less place there is for the Spirit, the less place there is for the Lord, and the less freedom there is’. In many respects, we have seen this approach – a light-touch institutional bureaucracy – very clearly in his pontificate, and especially in his proposals for liturgical reform, each of which has been by personal example rather than institutional decree. If this has limited the implementation, then it is has – at least as much – enabled it to be a deep reform and renewal where it has found fertile soil.
It is typical of Benedict to leave us with this thought, because it reminds us again that not only is the office that he will soon leave not about him, but that the Church – and thus her mission – is not about us, rather (because it is fundamentally his body), it is about Jesus Christ. Again and again we have seen this in Pope Benedict’s writings and in his own life, and now in these final hours – in this final act as the Vicar of Christ – we see it again. ‘It is not I’, he says with St Paul, ‘but Christ living in me’ (cf. Gal. 2:20). May we strive to say the same.