Thursday, May 1, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI in New York

5 Easter A #52

Acts 6, 1-7
Ps 33
1 Pt 2, 4-9
Jn 14, 1-12

Deacon Tom Cornell
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.

April 20, 2008

Today’s readings offer at least three themes for a homily. “A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people the Lord claims as his own.” That’s you, dear friends, a good text from Peter’s First Letter for a sermon on the priesthood of the laity. The reading from Acts relates the institution of the order of deacons. That’s a hard one for me to pass up. Then the Gospel reading from John has Jesus tell Philip that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father, that Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus is the revelation of God. But because the Pope is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, and he’s in New York City today, I have to talk about him.

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger first came into public view he was portrayed as a harsh man, seeking out heretics to punish. The media called him the Panzerkardinal, and John Paul’s Rottweiler. That was unfair. It was never true. When Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he did his job, and that job was to see to it that what is taught in the name of the Church is indeed what the Church teaches, and he did it well. But he was never harsh or mean.

Our friend Father Martin Laird came to Monica and me twenty-five years ago as a student working for his master’s degree in divinity on the way to ordination to the priesthood. He’s a professor of theology at Villanova University now. Father Marty spent five years studying in Rome, and there he met Cardinal Ratzinger, quite by accident. He was walking in St. Peter’s Square one day when he recognized the Cardinal. “Buon giorno, Eminenza!” he said. Cardinal Ratzinger responded and stopped to ask him where he was from and what he was doing in Rome. They met the same way a few more times. The Cardinal never failed to ask, “How is your mother in Tulsa, how’s her health?” or some other personal question that showed he remembered and that he cared. And Cardinal Ratzinger would show up sometimes when doctoral candidates were defending their dissertations at the Roman universities. He never put a student down or on the spot, never asked a trick question. He was always encouraging, kind and affirming.

Now that he is pope everyone wants to know what he is going to say. There is no voice on earth that speaks with the moral authority of the bishop of Rome. Whether Catholic or not, whether Christian or not, whether believer or not – most people look to the Holy Father as just that, a holy father, a man who will speak for their hearts’ desire, their hope for peace and human decency, justice and freedom, and give them maybe a glimpse of the Beyond.

Most people don’t ask so very much out of life, just an honest job to provide a roof over their heads and food on the table, to sit beneath their own vine and fig tree, to live in peace and unafraid, free to worship God, free to share their most cherished beliefs and traditions and to pass them on. And most people have at least an intuition of the Transcendent, a sense of the holy, the sacred, beyond words. The Pope speaks to that in everyone. You don’t have to be a Catholic to thrill to the Pope’s words of unity and compassion, hope and faith and God’s love and mercy, but it’s great to be a Catholic when he speaks as he does, one of his flock, this good shepherd.

That’s what a pope is, that’s what his job is, to be a pastor, a shepherd, a father. Some may say, “We don’t need a shepherd, we are men and women, not sheep. We are adults, and we don’t need a father. This is ‘a world come of age,’” they say. “We make our own way, we know where we are going.” Sure! A steady march to a cliff, the very brink of destruction! We pollute the earth, the water, the air we breathe. We live on others, taking more than our share. And to keep it that way, we live, each one of us every day, under a nuclear cloud, the threat of extinction by our own blind greed and pride. We need a shepherd, a father, to show us another way.

The pope is the symbol of our unity as Catholic Christians, and he is the guarantor of our unity. Jesus prayed at the Last Supper for his disciples, “that they be one, even as you and I, Father, are one, so that the world might believe” (Jn 17, 21). Saint Peter was the one who spoke for all the others when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And we know what Jesus said to him. He gave him a new name: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church... the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth, it is bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, it is loosed in heaven” (Mt. 15, 13-19). It was Peter who gathered the apostles after the Resurrection and rallied them to proclaim the Good News. Peter held the new Christians together in the first generation of the Church.

How is it that the bishop of Rome gets an official welcome at the White House and gets to address the United Nations as a head of state? It is because he is a head of state. The Holy See has had a role in framing international treaties since the Early Middle Ages. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, in the 5th Century, the Church in the West was able to maintain its independence because it controlled territories of its own. The Church in the East had a different history, where the Empire survived another thousand years. The Byzantine emperor not only acted as the protector of the Church, but presumed to act as its head, and, in the words of Orthodox Bishop Timothy Ware, the Orthodox venerated the emperor as “the very icon of God on earth.” If history has taught us nothing else, it is this: the closer the Church gets to power, the worse for the Church. Giuseppe Garibaldi did the Church and the papacy an enormous favor when he seized almost all of the papal territory for a united Italy. The pope was left with a small section of the City of Rome, Vatican Hill. But the Vatican remains an independent state, and that is why the pope has retained juridical status in the world of international diplomacy and why the Holy See is represented at the United Nations. But that wouldn’t count for much if this pope didn’t show the face of Christ. That’s what really matters.

Pope Benedict had a lot to say when he went to the White House (I’d love to hear what he had to say in private), and to the United Nations, and at the seminary for the Youth Rally and at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and he will have more to say today at Yankee Stadium. I hope it will all be collected in a book, Benedict XVI in the USA. I can’t touch on even a little bit of it now, except to say that his heart pleads for the most oppressed, the peoples of Darfur and Sudan, the people of Palestine, of Iraq as well as for the most vulnerable among us, the young, the elderly, immigrants and the unborn. His criticisms have been clear but not strident. He reaffirmed the Church’s support for the United Nations and he took sides in the current debate over national sovereignty as opposed to the duty of the international community to protect the innocent when national states will not or can not. That means Darfur! He spoke of immigrants’ rights. That means the way we treat aliens! And of unilateralism. That means the invasion of Iraq! And he criticized the culture’s hedonism and materialism, individualism and relativism. But his tone has been positive and affirming throughout. We have been through some hard years, scandal, but the Pope spoke to that frankly and earnestly, and the people heard him, and they love him.

We can all be proud of this good and gentle Holy Father. His constant reference is to Jesus Christ, not himself, but to Christ our hope, now and forever. It is the love of Christ that urges us on to prayer and to service. Benedict is a brilliant theologian, and he has a heart as warm as his brain is powerful. It is so good to have him here with us, so good to feel pride in our Catholic faith and our Church, so good to stand with Pope Benedict as he stands for the good of all people, their well-being on earth and their eternal salvation in heaven. Thank you, Holy Father!