The Witness of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
Cardinal Cupich delivered the following homily during a January 2, 2023 memorial Mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at Holy Name Cathedral.
For good reasons, many will remember Benedict XVI for his countless incomparable gifts and talents. He had a brilliant mind, wrote elegantly and taught in a way that inspired his students to learn. Yet, today, as we commend this good and faithful servant to God and seek comfort and encouragement for ourselves, God’s word on this feast of Sts. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus bids us to focus on ways Joseph Ratzinger, called to do great things, made witnessing to the Gospel’s call to live in humble service to all his priority. He offered that witness in three ways: through his dedication to scholarship, his unwavering conviction that belonging to a community defines our lives and his radical dependence on the person of Jesus Christ.
I have come to learn over the years that when people think about those who dedicate their lives to scholarship, a quality often overlooked is humility. It takes a good deal of humility to allow your mind to be formed, not by your own musings and opinions, but by others as you interact and dialogue with them. It is a humility that rejects the myth of the self-made man. It is noteworthy that as Benedict expressed gratitude in his last testament for those who contributed to his life, he purposely singled out those who journeyed with him as he learned. “I warmly thank God for … the teachers and pupils He has given me,” he wrote.
Taking up a life singularly dedicated to learning means giving oneself over to the voices of others in the past and in the present. It means ceding all claims of being an autonomous subject. Joseph Ratzinger the great theologian was that humble scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven, as we read about in the Gospel, who “like the head of a household [brought] from [the] storeroom both the new and the old.” And so, today we should give thanks for all who enrich humanity through their scholarship, but also be more willing to likewise learn from others, humbly valuing the kind of lifelong learning that comes with dialoguing with people in the past and in the present.
From his earliest years, living in a loving family, Joseph Ratzinger learned the humility of living in community, learned that the authentic life is lived in community, learned that we are connected to each other and that life is to be shared through sacrifice. “I thank my parents,” he wrote in his testament, “who gave me life in a difficult time and who, at the cost of great sacrifices, with their love prepared for me a magnificent home that, like a clear light, illuminates all my days until today. My father’s lucid faith taught us children to believe, and as a trail marker it was always firm in the midst of all my scientific acquisitions. My mother’s deep devotion and great kindness are a legacy for which I cannot thank enough,” he wrote.
Through this family experience, he acquired a humility that became second nature to him, leaving him with the palpable sense of being connected with others. It is no wonder then that when he called the church to take up works of charity in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” he reminded us that “love needs to be organized.” These words have their root in all that he learned at home, that for love to be authentic it must connect us to one another, make demands on us but also comfort us as we discover an interdependence that binds us together. It was this humility, acquired in being docile to learning within a community, that gave him the confidence to respond to the great call he received. He learned that he was not alone and thus he could do great things by being the servant of all.
Perhaps one of the most quoted lines of his writings is found in the first paragraph of “Deus Caritas Est”: “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.” With his keen intelligence, Joseph Ratzinger could have remained comfortable in the world of ideas and theories, but he made himself vulnerable to the point that his encounter with Jesus rather than the safe world of ideas gave decisive direction to his life. Pope Benedict provided a window into the overpowering experience of his relationship with the person of Jesus in his homily for Mass of Taking Possession of the Chair of Peter on the Solemnity of the Ascension in 2005. “Christ’s Ascension,” he said, “is not a journey into space toward the most remote stars.” Rather, by ascending to the Father, Christ “led our human existence into God’s presence … [to the point that] the human being now finds room in God.” And so, by bringing us to the Father as he ascends, Christ is “close to each one of us forever. Each one of us can be on intimate terms with him; each can call upon him. The Lord is always within hearing,” he said. This profound sense of being ever close to the Lord, marked his life to the end. I was not surprised to read this week that his last words reportedly were “Jesus, ich liebe dich” — “Jesus, I love you.” He humbled himself to enter into a trusting relationship, to relate to Jesus not as a lofty idea or an ethical choice but as a person who remained close to him.
The funeral rites in the Christian tradition are designed to do two things: Pray for the deceased and comfort those who mourn. The Scriptures, given to us on this feast day of two great theologians and bishops, Basil and Gregory Nazianzus, help us to do both. They spur us to ask God to now bring to full stature in Christ a man who dedicated his entire life from an early age to building up the Body of Christ. But these Scripture passages also bring us comfort, prompting us to be grateful that we lived in a time when one who was called to be the greatest among us took seriously the Gospel call to humble himself by being the servant of all, even if that meant resigning his office.
May the promise of the Gospel that “whoever humbles himself will be exalted” be fulfilled in him. May he rest in peace knowing of our gratitude and prayers for him.