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Homily - Mass for Pope Benedict XVI

Cathedral of Mary Our Queen

On Tuesday of last week I felt very deeply that, as we voted in the Sistine Chapel, we were not just the 115 electors, but a whole world of praying people, also present spiritually and calling down the Holy Spirit upon us. Numerous letters, e-mails and telephone messages confirmed this, and they came not only from our Catholic people, but from members of other Christian Churches and from Jewish and Muslim friends.

What happened in Rome when the white smoke rose gave proof of what Pope Benedict XVI said at his Mass at the beginning of his pastoral service last Sunday, “The Church is alive, and the Church is young.” The media are not able to register the presence and the action of the Holy Spirit. But the media do show what happens when the Spirit is at work.

I would like to acknowledge the wonderful efforts of the media in this past month, making it possible for so many to participate in our farewell to beloved Pope John Paul II and the welcome of our Catholic world, and indeed, of people of good will everywhere, to Pope Benedict XVI. The media relayed the images of the vast crowds gathered as Pope John Paul lay dying and then at his funeral. We remember him as a beloved Holy Father who visited this Cathedral ten years ago and placed in my hands the chalice in use at this Mass.

There were vast crowds also, and they gathered quickly, when Pope Benedict XVI was elected. When we cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel, we did not know how long it would take us to find a successor for the Apostle Peter. We were reminded that our effort was like that of the Magi from the East, who followed a star, who knew that a special person had been born but did not know who this person was. But God knew, and God’s Spirit guided us.

The deacon Philip, as reported in the First Reading, created quite a stir in Samaria when the people “saw the signs he was doing.” During the conclave, we cardinals could renew our acquaintance among ourselves, and hear about the work of the Church in various parts of the world. What I heard is illustrated in the first reading: in the mission countries especially, the Holy Spirit is using the Church to accomplish what Jesus and the deacon Philip did in the early days of the Christian Faith: they were casting out unclean spirits and curing “many paralyzed or crippled people.” Next came a sacramental step: Peter and John were sent to confirm those who had been baptized but not confirmed. The sacrament completed their preparation for receiving the Lord Jesus himself in the Eucharist.

Our actual conclave was a kind of spiritual retreat. The setting was an awesome one, the Sistine Chapel, with the greatest religious art in the world. I found very helpful the marvelous fresco of Perugino, depicting the Lord Jesus giving the keys of the heavenly kingdom to the Apostle Peter. But also, directly overhead were the incredible scenes from the Book of Genesis recounting, with incredible power, the story of the Creation and Fall of our first parents, the initial alienation that Jesus came to heal. And, to my left, was the masterpiece of Michelangelo, the Last Judgment, before which each of us Cardinals, mindful of Jesus who would judge us, swore that we would cast our ballots for the one we thought most worthy to guide the Church in the coming years.

In his last published poem, Roman Triptych, Pope John Paul described the scene:

“Those entrusted with the legacy of the keys
gather here, letting themselves be enfolded by the Sistine’s colors,
by the vision left to us be Michelangelo--….
So it will be once more, when the time comes, after my death.
Michelangelo’s vision must then speak to them.
“Con-clave”: a shared concern for the legacy of the keys, the keys of the Kingdom.
Lo, they see themselves in the midst of the Beginning and the End,
between the Day of Creation and the Day of Judgment…
It is granted man once to die, and thereafter, the Judgment!
Final transparency and light….
He will point him out.

The second reading is from the First Letter of St. Peter, which might be called the first papal encyclical. It is a document extremely rich in significance, because, like all Scripture, it was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Peter reminds us that the strongest and most effective witness for Christ is a holy, Christian life, shaped by the Lord’s example and what he has taught us. This life, he goes on to teach, is characterized by meekness, by respect for others and by a right conscience, based on biblical teachings, of which Jesus said, “I have come, not to abolish them (the law and the prophets) but to fulfill them.”

This approach I found helpful in responding to the questions of the television reporters. When one of them asked, for example, what are you looking for in the next Pope, I answered, “One who preaches the gospel of Jesus with conviction and persuasive power.” And that is the person chosen to be the Successor of the Apostle Peter, one who will carry on the reconciling role among religions and among peoples Pope John Paul II so wonderfully has charted.

I have known Pope Benedict XVI personally for 22 years and, between l989, when I was elected here in Baltimore, as Vice President of our Bishops’ Conference, until 1995, I met with him several times a year. I found him most approachable and eager to learn. We in the United States benefited from his personal interest in, for example, inclusive language in our liturgical translations – an issue unheard of in other modern languages.

He committed himself publicly during his homily last Sunday to follow through on the teachings of Pope John Paul II. During the course of this week he has spoken of his deep desire to work for Christian unity, to see that, as Pope John Paul was fond of saying, the Church breathes with both the lung of the West and the lung of the East, the Eastern Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, which have such a great veneration for the Mother of God, Mary, who is our spiritual mother also. He looks forward to dialogue with our Jewish neighbors, with whom we have a most special relationship, in our shared scriptures and in the irrevocable call of God through Abraham to them. With Muslims also, Pope Benedict XVI looks forward to a fraternal dialogue: they share with us belief in the one, true God and have as a basic tenet of their faith, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in Jerusalem, a love of reconciliation and of peace.

When he traveled around the world, Pope John Paul II always celebrated the liturgy according to the rites introduced by the Second Vatican Council. We cannot forget the Mass he offered here at Oriole Park in Camden Yards, when, with the sign of the Cross, he instantly transformed a stadium into an open air cathedral. Our new Holy Father will walk in the same path, and we shall see this in August, when he goes to Cologne for World Youth Day, when, as of now, some 125 young people from the Archdiocese of Baltimore will be with us in Cologne. For some years, I pointed out repeatedly in Rome, the media have failed to appreciate the faith and the enthusiasm of our young people. The seminarians at the North American College, in applauding an American cardinal at a press conference, underscored their appreciation for the leadership of Pope John Paul II in recognizing the newfound and explosive faith of youth.

The Holy Father will continue to reach out on behalf of justice and peace issues, such as religious freedom, the cause of human life, and peace itself. When he chose the name Benedict, he said it was because he felt a special attraction to Pope Benedict XV, who labored so hard on behalf of peace at the time of the First World War.

When I went up to greet the Holy Father after his election, I brought to him the love of all of us here in the Archdiocese, and he said, “We must keep praying for each other.” A week ago Friday he received all the Cardinals in Rome and spoke of his desire to continue his discussions with us. He then saw us individually and commented to me, “Your diocese is the first in the United States.” I responded, “Yes, Holy Father, and we have the first cathedral, the Basilica, which is now being restored. It will be rededicated next year and all the U. S. Bishops have agreed to come for the event. It would be wonderful if you could come and personally conduct the rededication.” He said, “I will see….”

Pope Benedict XVI reminds me of my own mother, who was so sweet and clear. His sweetness and clarity echo what the Apostle Peter asked of all of us in the second reading today. It is an echo also of what we hear in the Gospel passage for today, a passage which begins with the words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,…” These strong words are followed by others which teach us that Jesus will send us an “Advocate,” the Holy Spirit, who is “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.”

In a most special way, if our reception of Holy Communion is a worthy one, we shall know him and he, God’s Holy Spirit, will remain in us, strengthening us for witness to his presence in our lives and to the way of Jesus Christ.