Much has been written in these last days about the legacy of our late Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI: some good, some a misrepresentation of a man many of us never met in person. But we cannot ignore that he has been a huge figure in the Church and the world. Despite not meeting him in the flesh, so many of us have encountered him through his writings, and in those books and letters we see something of the inner life of this theologian-pope, something of his piety, and something of his goodness.
When he became Archbishop of Munich he chose as his motto some words from the first Letter of St John, Cooperatores veritatis — “Co-workers for the truth”. For Pope Benedict that truth was never an abstract idea, let alone a free-for-all based on whim or fashion, but rather that Truth was a person, Jesus Christ, and it was Benedict’s deep desire to ensure, through his teaching, his writings, the pastoral care of souls and his governance, that God in the person of Jesus Christ would be at the centre of the faith of the Church, our faith.
Faith in Christ was something he knew transfigured everything. At the World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, he summed this up for the young people gathered there in a surprising way: “The happiness that you seek, the happiness you have a right to enjoy, has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth.” He compared our Christian journey to that of the Magi, journeying in search of a King, but most often we journey in our life of faith in search of meaning, in search of one who will satisfy the deepest desires of our heart, knowing that they will not be satisfied until we reach him. That one is Christ.
This core truth of Pope Benedict’s life informed all his work, especially his writings. As an academic, he wrote with great precision on all areas of Catholic theology, particularly about the Second Vatican Council (at which he was a theological adviser), but he also wrote very beautifully about the life of Jesus, on the moral life and the importance of serving the poor, about the virtues, and about beauty and the sacred liturgy. For Pope Benedict these were all inseparable from one another and presupposed one another. Our prayer demands of us the right worship of God which demands of us service of others and the life of virtue which in turn leads back to the offering of our whole lives to God, who leads us to that happiness in which is found authentic humanity. And this is also a sign of what heaven is like. God is our destination and it is our friendship with God in the Lord Jesus that shows us how to be truly human.
Such a faith makes demands of us, but they are happy demands. In his “Spiritual Testament”, published on the day of his death, Pope Benedict exhorted us to “Stand firm in the faith! Do not be confused!” If we trust in what the Lord has done for us, if we give our hearts in openness to him, we must respond to the graces he gives us in return. The late Pope Emeritus is often quoted as having said, “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” That challenge is picked up again in his wonderful encyclical letter, Spe salvi, where he says, “Man was created for greatness — for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.” It is in our response to the hope that God offers us, it is our desire for God that stretches our heart and the response we must make is our devotion, our prayer life, our participation in the sacraments and in our service of others. The Christian life prepares us for heaven because it enlarges our heart to receive what God offers us — himself.
Perhaps most telling are the last words of Pope Benedict’s life. On the morning of his death he was heard saying, Gesù, ti amo! — “Jesus, I love you”. As a last lesson from this saintly teacher, we could receive none better. May our whole lives be an expression of this phrase, may it colour all that we do and think and feel so that nothing can separate us from him. We pray that in that expression of love, Pope Benedict has been brought home to the one in whom he always hoped and whom he sought to share with the world.
There will be a Solemn Requiem Mass in our church for Pope Benedict tonight at 6pm.
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