This weekend, as we start a new year, we’re doing more than changing calendars and making resolutions.
We’re watching history in the making.
The death of Pope Emeritus Benedict was not unexpected —but it is creating a moment that the New York Times described, correctly, as “unprecedented.”
No one can recall a sitting pope preparing to preside at the funeral of a retired pope. As a result, when it comes to plans, protocols, procedures, there’s much that we just don’t know.
But this is good moment to reflect on what we do know:
We have lost a great clergyman, writer, teacher and thinker.
And on this particular Sunday, hearing again this particular Gospel about the men who came to visit the newborn Jesus, we realize something else:
We have also lost a shepherd.
As a bishop, he carried a crosier, the shepherd’s staff. And he wore the pallium around his shoulders, woven from lamb’s wool — the symbol of the yoke of Christ and a constant reminder of the flock that he tends.
But to him, these were more than symbols.
This was part of his vocation, his calling, his work in the world. He lived to guide, to lead, and to love.
On the day he was installed, April 24, 2005, the new Pope Benedict spoke about that in his homily.
“One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd,” he said, “must be to love the people entrusted to him … loving means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence, which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament.”
He continued: “My dear friends – at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more – in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Let us pray for one another, that the Lord will carry us and that we will learn to carry one another.”
There is much that will be written about Benedict and his legacy in the weeks to come. One scholar yesterday said his theology will be studied for centuries.
But reflecting on all this today, I was stuck by something personal, a memory.
I’ve lived in New York most of my adult life, nearly 40 years. But I have only been to Yankee Stadium once, in the spring of 2008.
It wasn’t to watch the Yankees or hear a concert.
I went there to see a shepherd.
My wife and I took the subway to the Bronx, to attend the Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict on his trip to New York, his last Mass in the United States.
At the time, I’d been ordained for less than a year. To my way of thinking, I was going there to see my boss.
It was a brilliant, beautiful day. There was a huge contingent of people from all over New York City, cheering him as he rode the popemobile into center field. It seemed like every country, every borough, every generation was represented.
But in his homily that day Pope Benedict gave special attention to the youngest members of his flock.
“My dear young friends,” he said, “may you find the courage to proclaim Christ, ‘the same, yesterday, and today and forever’ and the unchanging truths which have their foundation in him. These are the truths that set us free!”
In so many ways, his message then was the same as on the day he was installed as pope, when he made a point of repeating the words of Pope John Paul: “Do not be afraid.”
His call to us then is his call to us now: be courageous.
I go back to his first homily as pope, from 2005. Re-reading it yesterday, I was struck by these words, also addressed to young people:
“If we let Christ into our lives,” he said, “we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide…And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.”
That is the Christian message in one short paragraph.
As we begin a new year, it is something that should give us consolation and hope.
“Do not be afraid of Christ.” Live without fear. Have faith.
It is a message that reminds us today of someone who took that idea to heart and lived it: Mary.
We traditionally dedicate this day, January 1st, to Mary the Mother of God. This moment belongs to her — a moment of possibility, a new beginning, a fresh start. Mary embodies that.
The Gospel we just heard tells us how she welcomed shepherds to honor her son.
We pray today that she is welcoming another shepherd to honor her son.
May she lead Benedict to that place of perfect rest and perfect peace, the place we all pray to one day call home, the Father’s house.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.