February 7, 2023 // Bishop

Surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses

On Jan. 31, the one-month anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s death, Bishop Rhoades celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for the repose of the soul of Pope Benedict XVI. The text of his homily at the Mass follows:

One of the favorite images of Saint Paul for the Christian life is that of an athletic contest, specifically a race. That is the image used by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews in today’s first reading. He urges us to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and to persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” Today, we remember a man who did precisely that: Joseph Ratzinger. He did so from the days of his youth in Bavaria amid the terrors of Nazi Germany, through his years as a priest and university professor, theological expert at the Second Vatican Council, archbishop and cardinal of Munich, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, and as successor of Saint Peter with the name “Pope Benedict XVI.”

Photos by Christopher Lushis
Bishop Rhoades preaches a homily in remembrance of Pope Benedict XVI on Jan. 31 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne. Known as a “Month’s Mind Mass,” the celebration took place one month after Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral as a reminder to continue to pray for the repose of his soul.

Throughout his life, as a brilliant theologian, as close advisor of Saint John Paul II, and as pope, and in the midst of great challenges and crises, Joseph Ratzinger ran the race, always keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus, whom he loved and served with all his strength. With Jesus, he endured the cross, the pain of criticism, and opposition. He did so out of fidelity to the truth of the Gospel and out of love for the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We heard in the first reading today: “For the sake of the joy that lay before Him, Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken His seat at the right of the throne of God.” We pray at this Mass for Pope Benedict, that he who was so faithful to the Lord, may enter into the joy of His Master and Teacher, the joy of Christ’s Resurrection.

In the reading today, we heard that in the race of the Christian life, “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” This refers to the saints in heaven. Pope Benedict was very conscious of this. In fact, in his general audiences for five years, from 2006 to 2011, he gave beautiful catecheses on the lives of the saints, beginning with the Twelve Apostles and continuing through the centuries. He believed that the lives and examples of the saints are the most convincing explanation of the Gospel.

Pope Benedict had a vision of the Church as a house of holiness, a Church that truly reflects the light of Christ. He believed that the new evangelization would only bear fruit through a genuine renewal of the Church by the witness of holiness. He taught that in these difficult times, in the midst of a culture that has increasingly forgotten or marginalized God, in the midst of what he famously called “a dictatorship of relativism,” the world needs the truth of the Gospel and our witness of holiness. And that requires our conversion. As we heard in the reading from Hebrews, to run the race well, we need “to rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us.” Pope Benedict wrote of how the saints were human like us and needed to rid themselves of sin like we do. He reminded us that we are no less capable of holiness than they were.

We can learn and grow from the example and lives of these holy men and women who encountered the living Christ and lived to the full grace of their Baptism, who lived beautiful lives of faith, hope, and charity. Pope Benedict XVI learned from the saints he spoke about. Out of love, he gave his life to God and to the Church.

Each time I met Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and later Pope Benedict XVI, whose theological works I studied and loved, I was struck by his great humility, his goodness, meekness, gentleness, and purity of heart. He was a man obviously close to the Lord. In him, I saw the attributes of Jesus that we heard in this past Sunday’s Gospel, the Beatitudes. So many of us, including the millions of young people at World Youth Days in Cologne, Sydney, and Madrid, experienced him as a father, indeed, as “a holy father.” He was as he identified himself when he appeared on the balcony of Saint Peter’s after his election as pope “a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”

Brothers and sisters, in the journey, the race, of our Christian lives, let us be aware, like Pope Benedict was aware, that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. We pray at this Mass that Joseph Ratzinger is now part of that cloud of witnesses, and that if he is in purgatory, that he will soon be within that cloud of witnesses in heaven.

Bishop Rhoades holds up a prayer card of Pope Benedict XVI at the conclusion of Mass, inviting those present to take one home as an aid for continuing to pray for the former holy father. The same cards have been distributed to each parish of the diocese. Additional cards may be obtained by contacting the Diocesan Office of Communications.

I wasn’t greatly surprised when I learned that Pope Benedict’s last words shortly before he died one month ago today were: “Lord, I love you.” His last audience talk on the saints was on Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. In that talk, he said that the last words of Saint Therese, while looking at the crucifix she held tightly in her hands while dying, were “My God, I love you.”  Pope Benedict said that those simple words are at the heart of all her writings. “The act of love for Jesus immersed her in the Most Holy Trinity.” I think we can say the same about Joseph Ratzinger who, before dying, repeated Saint Therese’s words. Like Saint Therese and like his own two favorite models, Saint Augustine and Saint Bonaventure, Pope Benedict” let himself be led by God to the depths of His mystery.”

We now enter into that mystery through the sacrament of Divine Love, the Holy Eucharist. It is the gift in which Jesus manifests His love for us and offers to us His Body and His Blood. In the Eucharist, we receive the food of salvation, the grace to live in Christ’s love, like the saints did and like Pope Benedict did. In the Eucharist, we receive Christ’s life for our journey to be with Him and all the saints in glory.

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