There has been a lot of discussion lately about Pope Francis’s homily for the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict; some have argued, correctly, that it was a homily, not a eulogy, and served as a powerful homiletic reflection on sacrifice and surrender. Others have complained that it didn’t speak enough about Benedict’s life or pay tribute to the man himself.
Can you have both?
Sometimes a homily can also have elements of a eulogy, and gain even more power and relevance. There is no finer example than the homily Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict — delivered at the funeral for Pope John Paul II in 2005.
It should be studied and re-read by anyone who wants to know how it’s done. This is it.
This is the work of a master, using the life of the deceased to illuminate just two words from the Gospel: “Follow me.”
Follow me — as a young student Karol Wojtyła was thrilled by literature, the theatre and poetry. Working in a chemical plant, surrounded and threatened by the Nazi terror, he heard the voice of the Lord: Follow me!
In this extraordinary setting he began to read books of philosophy and theology, and then entered the clandestine seminary established by Cardinal Sapieha. After the war he was able to complete his studies in the faculty of theology of the Jagiellonian University of Krakow.
How often, in his letters to priests and in his autobiographical books, has he spoken to us about his priesthood, to which he was ordained on 1 November 1946. In these texts he interprets his priesthood with particular reference to three sayings of the Lord.
First: “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go
and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16).
The second saying is: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11).
And then: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 15:9).
In these three sayings we see the heart and soul of our Holy Father. He really went everywhere, untiringly, in order to bear fruit, fruit that lasts.
“Rise, Let us be on our Way!”, is the title of his next-to-last book. “Rise, let us be on our way!” — with these words he roused us from a lethargic faith, from the sleep of the disciples of both yesterday and today. “Rise, let us be on our way! “, he continues to say to us even today.
The Holy Father was a priest to the last, for he offered his life to God for his flock and for the entire human family, in a daily self-oblation for the service of the Church, especially amid the sufferings of his final months. And in this way he became one with Christ, the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep.
Finally, “abide in my love”: the Pope who tried to meet everyone, who had an ability to forgive and to open his heart to all, tells us once again today, with these words of the Lord, that by abiding in the love of Christ we learn, at the school of Christ, the art of true love.
Follow me! In July 1958 the young priest Karol Wojtyła began a new stage in his journey with the Lord and in the footsteps of the Lord.
Karol had gone to the Masuri lakes for his usual vacation, along with a group of young people who loved canoeing. But he brought with him a letter inviting him to call on the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszyński. He could guess the purpose of the meeting: he was to be appointed as the Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow.
Leaving the academic world, leaving this challenging engagement with young people, leaving the great intellectual endeavor of striving to understand and interpret the mystery of that creature which is man and of communicating to today’s world the Christian interpretation of our being — all this must have seemed to him like losing his very self, losing what had become the very human identity of this young priest.
Follow me — Karol Wojtyła accepted the appointment, for he heard in the Church’s call the voice of Christ. And then he realized how true are the Lord’s words: “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Lk 17:33).
Our Pope — and we all know this — never wanted to make his own life secure, to keep it for himself; he wanted to give of himself unreservedly, to the very last moment, for Christ and thus also for us. And thus he came to experience how everything which he had given over into the Lord’s hands came back to him in a new way.
His love of words, of poetry, of literature, became an essential part of his pastoral mission and gave new vitality, new urgency, new attractiveness to the preaching of the Gospel, even when it is a sign of contradiction.
Follow me! In October 1978 Cardinal Wojtyła once again heard the voice of the Lord. Once more there took place that dialogue with Peter reported in the Gospel of this Mass: “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Feed my sheep!”.
To the Lord’s question, “Karol, do you love me?”, the Archbishop of Krakow answered from the depths of his heart: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you”.
The love of Christ was the dominant force in the life of our beloved Holy Father. Anyone who ever saw him pray, who ever heard him preach, knows that. Thanks to his being profoundly rooted in Christ, he was able to bear a burden which transcends merely human abilities: that of being the shepherd of Christ’s flock, his universal Church.
At the conclusion of the homily Cardinal Ratzinger avoided the temptation of the moment — the temptation of many funeral preachers, to casually canonize the dead — but offered instead this beautiful image of transcendent hope:
None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi. We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.
Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.