HOMILY AT THE SOLEMN PONTIFICAL MASS
FOR THE REPOSE OF THE SOUL
OF POPE EMERITUS BENEDICT XVI
The Cathedral of St Stephen 7 January 2023
Readings: 1 John 5:14-21; John 2:1-11
Joseph Ratzinger was Pope for not quite eight years, but he was influential for much longer than that. By temperament he was in some ways more suited to wielding influence than exercising power.
His influence stretches back to the years of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) when as a gifted young theologian he accompanied and advised Cardinal Frings of Cologne who was an important voice. Like other theological experts, Ratzinger became influential through the years of the Council: his name was known and his texts were read. Through the Council and beyond, he became one of the opinion shapers and a key interpreter of the Council’s grand complexity. Throughout his life in fact the interpretation of Vatican II remained one of the dominant themes.
He became still more influential, though in a different way, when Pope John Paul II called him to Rome in 1982 after a brief stint as Archbishop of Munich. For 23 years Cardinal Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and it would be hard to overstate the power and reach of his influence in that role through the years.
His working relationship with John Paul II was extraordinary. They would meet on Friday, and those conversations helped shape the great themes of the Wojtyla papacy. From them came eventually the Encyclical Letters which bore the Pope’s signature but the Prefect’s stamp. Pope John Paul was given to prophetic insights and impulses – and to the Prefect fell the task of tying them down theologically lest the insights and impulses fly away on the wind and the prophecy come to nothing.
Like the Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger was never a Curial insider. He was not interested in the intrigues of the papal court. Yet he could make even the grandest of Curialists tremble, because they knew just how much the Pope trusted him and what influence he wielded. That gave Ratzinger a peculiar freedom in the Curial world. He depended on no-one but the Pope.
As Prefect, his tone and style changed from his days as theologian at the Council and in its immediate aftermath. In a time of great flux, containing both promise and threat, Ratzinger acted as guardian of Catholic orthodoxy with vigour, clarity and conviction – and no little controversy, which is what earned him the sobriquets of God’s Rottweiler and the Panzerkardinal. Neither was true, but they made for snappy headlines and convenient stereotypes.
He acted with particular vigour against what had come to be known as Liberation Theology, born in the barrios of Latin America. As a young academic passionately concerned for truth, Ratzinger had come to loathe Marxism in all its forms and with all its lies. He had also lived through the Communist partitioning of his native land. Once he had judged that Marxism was at work in Liberation Theology, he was determined, with Pope John Paul, to put an end to it. In that mode, he could be very resolute indeed. He also became increasingly negative in his assessment of major trends within Western cultures and of what he judged to be the religious syncretism of some Asian theologies. As Prefect then he had plenty to keep him busy.
It’s said that, through the years, he twice offered his resignation to John Paul II who refused to accept it. The Pope wanted the Prefect to stay until the end of the pontificate, though most probably Ratzinger himself was longing for the tranquility of his German study. But stay on he did, showing himself, as he did through his life, to be one who was willing to serve, even against his own wishes.
He was already 78 when John Paul died, which is why I for one didn’t consider him a real candidate in the conclave that followed. But he was elected in one of the shortest of modern conclaves. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, he had impressed them with his deft handling of the daily meetings between the Pope’s death and the conclave. So too his memorable homily at the Pope’s funeral made its mark; and then the homily he gave at the Mass before the Cardinals entered the conclave was telling.
His election was a clear decision to continue the trajectories of the Wojtyla pontificate. Yet as Pope Benedict, Joseph Ratzinger turned out differently than many expected. In some ways he proved to be a bundle of paradoxes, even contradictions. He was very much of a particular time, place and culture, yet his teaching has a timelessness about it; what he wrote was profound, yet it remained accessible; he was not a popular figure as his predecessor had been, yet he still drew the crowds; he was a shy and retiring man, yet he was thrust relentlessly into the limelight; he was kind and courteous, yet he could be uncompromising, even severe; he was mild-mannered, but there was also a polemical edge to him; he was extremely alert intellectually, yet he could be politically unaware, prone to being blind-sided; he was by nature conservative, a lover of tradition, yet he was a reforming Pope, not only with the Holy See’s finances and its handling of sexual abuse, but most spectacularly with his resignation; he was in many ways immersed in, even imprisoned by the protocols of the papal court, yet it’s hard to think of a decision better designed to unsettle them than his resignation.
The list could go on. Yet for all this complexity there was a radiant simplicity at the heart of it all, as his last words reveal. “Lord, I love you”, he was reported as saying – simple words from the Gospel of John which go to the heart of the Petrine ministry and gather up an entire life.
Benedict XVI continued to be influential long after he had laid down the burden of the papacy. He will also continue to be influential beyond death, chiefly because of his texts which will remain a unique part of the Church’s magisterial patrimony.
Social media now speaks of influencers. It’s a slippery term, but it applies more aptly to Joseph Ratzinger than to just about anyone else I know. He may have exercised hierarchical power as Pope for a comparatively short time, but for 60 years he wielded real influence not just in the Vatican but in the global Church and perhaps in the world more broadly.
Our hope now is that Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI – priest, theologian, teacher, Archbishop, curial Cardinal, Pope, Pope emeritus – will pray for the Church that journeys on and show himself in death more of an influencer than ever. And with the story of Cana fresh in our minds, our prayer is that Mary our mother, the supreme influencer, will bring Joseph our brother to an honoured place at the marriage feast of the Lamb, the banquet of eternal life, where the wine never fails and the joy never fades. Amen.