28th February 2013 – Holy Angels Church, Hales Barnes
I am sure most of us can remember exactly where we were when we heard the news that Pope Benedict was to resign. The sadness we feel at his departing reminds us of the place the Pope holds in all our lives, not as a public figure, but truly as a Holy Father. “Every day I carried each of you in my prayers, with a father’s heart,” Pope Benedict told us yesterday, “the Pope belongs to everyone, and so many people feel very close to him … born of our being together in Christ Jesus, in the Church.” We can perhaps identify with those first Christians who wept when the Apostle Paul told them they would see his face no more (Acts 20: 36-38).
Whatever sadness we feel we must, above all, thank God for the eight years Pope Benedict XVI has been our Holy Father. It is a moment when we recognise how blessed we have been in the Popes of our life-times who have consistently shown us the path of faithfulness and the way to a genuine renewal of the Church. We might recall with some emotion those words of the Letter to the Hebrews: “remember your leaders, who preached the word of God to you, and as you reflect on the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith” (13: 7). I personally think of the example of Blessed John Paul II given me in my years as a young priest and the example and personal encouragement of Pope Benedict as I began my service as a bishop. Tonight we might each examine our consciences and ask: did we live up to the gift of such leadership in our time?
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 27th 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. The Liturgy declares it is in the saints: “you make your Church fruitful with strength ever new” (Roman Missal, Preface of the Saints).
During my visits to primary schools children often ask me as their bishop such questions: how old are you? which football team do you support? what is your favourite food? Perhaps with a little more adult sophistication we might have the same curiosity about our next Pope. In the days ahead we will hear many apparent experts urging the merits of one candidate or another. I ask you to avoid taking any part in this: the days before us surely demand of Catholics not punditry, but prayer! This night, when the Chair of St. Peter stands empty, invites us to renew our loyalty to the Pope whoever he will be. The continent he comes from, his race, his temperament, his age and even his football allegiance matters little. All that matters is that our new Pope will be faithful to the task entrusted to him and that he truly be a Holy Father for us. This is what continues unchanged as one Pope goes and another Pope comes to take the place of Peter in the life of the Church.
In a celebrated sermon, Blessed John Henry Newman reflected how the Church remains as unchangeable as Christ Himself “His Church … in all necessary matters, is as unchangeable as He.” “As in the Apostles time, so it is now” he reflected and “if a successor to St. Peter there must be, who is that successor?” Newman had no doubt: “it is he who sits in St. Peter’s chair: it is the Bishop of Rome …that continuous line of the Bishops of Rome, or Popes, as they are called, one after another, coming down to this day ….” (The Pope and the Revolution, 7th October 1866)
More than once I have been introduced to a parish or a school assembly as “Bishop Brian,” my predecessor. It reminds me that it doesn’t matter who the Bishop is, whether we can remember his name, but that he is a bishop for you. Likewise, Pope Benedict by the final act of his papacy shows us that we should never confuse the man with the office, the place of Peter in the life of the Church. Every Pope is called to continue the ministry first entrusted to Peter as: “the rock” on which the Church is built; confirming his brothers and sisters in faith; entrusted with the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; the pastor of the whole flock of the Lord, called to “feed my lambs, look after my sheep” (John 21: 15-17).
What inspires a man to accept such a weight of responsibility can be no other ambition except to answer that incisive question asked by Our Lord of Simon Peter: “Do you love me?” In this momentous and unsettled moment for the Church our confidence is not placed in any list of candidates, nor in any method of election, however time-honoured, but in our united prayer to Christ the Supreme and Eternal Pastor. It is by this prayer that all of us will be taking part in the coming Conclave. We begin this prayer together tonight and take Pope Benedict’s last words to heart:
“Dear friends! God guides His Church, maintains her always, and especially in difficult times. Let us never lose this vision of faith, which is the only true vision of the way of the Church and the world. In our hearts, in the heart of each of you, let there be always the joyous certainty that the Lord is near, that He does not abandon us, that He is near to us and surrounds us with His love. Thank you!”