'How time passes'
Today, as most Catholic blogs will be noting, is the first anniversary of the election of the Holy Father now gloriously reigning. As the Pope himself said at this morning's audience: 'How time passes. Already a year has gone by since the cardinals so unexpectedly chose my poor person to succeed the late and beloved great pope John Paul II.'
I wasn't blogging at the time of the conclave, but as a tribute to our German Shepherd here's a sermon I preached a few months ago at the Pope's birthplace, Martkl-am-Inn (near the Marian shrine of Altotting and the Austrian border). Interestingly, the church where the Pope was baptised is dedicated to an English saint - King St Oswald of Northumbria (martyr):
On Holy Saturday 1927, a baby (just four hours old) was baptised in this church and given the names Josef Alois Ratzinger. It was a day of deep snow and so teeth-chatteringly cold that even his two older siblings, Georg and Maria, were not allowed to attend the service, for fear of catching cold. Almost exactly 78 years later, that tiny baby – by now an eminent theologian and Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church – was elected Pope. I’m sure his parents never suspected that on the day of his baptism. As Ratzinger later wrote, ‘needless to say, I have no recollection of my baptism. My brother and sister told me that there was a lot of snow, that it was very cold, although it was April 16. But that is nothing extraordinary in Bavaria.’ It was, moreover, not an easy time for the Ratzinger family – ‘unemployment was rife; war reparation weighed heavily on the German economy; battles among the political parties set people against one another; endless illnesses visited the family.’
As we remember the simple baptism ceremony that took place here all those years ago and then think of the dramatic events of last April’s papal election, still so fresh in our minds, we begin to appreciate the mystery of vocation. God calls each one of us. God has a purpose for every human being - nobody is an accident. This divine call happens on two levels. First of all, there is what the Second Vatican Council referred to as the ‘universal call to holiness.’ It doesn’t matter whether you’re the Pope or a pauper, everybody is called to holiness, to be with God and share in His life. For Pope Benedict, that general call to holiness was first received in this church on the day of his baptism, and remains the same today.
However, as well as calling us to perfection in a general way, God gives each of us a different path to this holiness. Many people may never fully understand what their vocation involves, though they live it out nevertheless – it might involve working for a good cause, helping a neighbour in distress, following a particular profession, even being sick and infirm. Others will have a clearer idea of their call, since they will have celebrated one of the two sacraments of vocation: marriage or Holy Orders. A marriage or ordination service ‘seals’ the personal call with the blessing of the Church, and makes that way of life sacred and permanent.
Joseph Ratzinger heard the call of the Lord and was ordained a priest. He became renowned as a scholar, bishop, and cardinal. He hoped to be able retire to Bavaria for his twilight years, but found himself elected Pope – one of the most important and, indeed, lonely vocations.
What does being Pope involve? It has developed over the centuries. Ratzinger has referred to the essential office of Pope as ‘a protective barrier against arbitrary action.’ In other words, whenever there are calls to change something in the Church, the Pope is the one who asks ‘can we do that? Is that in line with Catholic teaching and tradition?’ The Pope is not an absolute monarch in the sense of doing whatever he likes. This is what many people thought at the time of the conclave last April. Journalists and writers speculated whether a ‘new’ Pope might, for example, change the Church’s teaching on divorce or ordain women as priests. A Pope cannot make up new policies in the same way as a Prime Minister. The truth of Christianity is unchanging, although our understanding of the faith may develop and its expression may change in different times and places. The Pope is the one who, as chief guardian of the faith, provides unity and continuity. When people refer to Pope Benedict as a ‘conservative,’ they misunderstand the whole nature of the Church – it is the Pope’s primary duty to conserve the truth revealed to man by God and to teach it (in all its glorious fullness) to the modern world. He is not there to be guided by the latest fashions and make dramatic changes to what God has handed down to us.
Pope Benedict provided a wonderful meditation on the role of the Papacy last year during his first Ascension Day Sermon: 'Peter expressed in the name of the apostles, the profession of faith: “Your are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is the task of all the Successors of Peter: to be the leader in the profession of faith in Christ, the Son of the living God. The chair of Rome is, first of all, chair of this creed. From the loftiness of this chair, the Bishop of Rome is obliged to repeat constantly: Dominus Iesus. “Jesus is Lord”… Whoever sits on the chair of Peter must remember the words that the Lord said to Simon Peter in the Last Supper: “And when you have returned again, strengthen your brethren.” The holder of the Petrine ministry must be conscious of being a frail and weak man, as his own strength is frail and weak, constantly needing purification and conversion. But he can also be conscious that from the Lord he receives strength to confirm his brethren in the faith and to keep them united in the confession of Christ, crucified and risen. In the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, we find the oldest account of the Resurrection available. Paul took it up faithfully from the witnesses. This account speaks first of all of the Lord's death for our sins, of his burial, of his resurrection, which took place on the third day, and later he says: "he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve" (1 Corinthians 15:5). Thus is summarized once again the meaning of the mandate conferred on Peter until the end of times: to be witness of the risen Christ.'
Today we pray that the Lord will strengthen Pope Benedict in his Petrine Ministry as witness of the risen Christ. We pray also that we will be loyal sons and daughters of Christ’s Church and that we will persevere in our own vocations.
Ad multos annos, Santo Padre!