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Summing Up Benedict XVI

By Victor Lee Austin

The earthly life of Pope Benedict XVI has come to an end and his body has been committed to its resting place. As with any death, one wonders what this particular life was all about: what does this whole life mean? Joseph Ratzinger, like Rowan Williams in this regard, was a theologian of such insight and brilliance that his death would have been noticed even if he had never held Church office. We can say of him that he was a world-class theologian. It is unusual for such thinkers to emerge, and it is not clear that our new century has the institutions or practices to raise up their equal.

Part of Ratzinger’s intellectual greatness was that it was not merely intellectual: it informed, gave shape to, his whole being. In a letter from Rome, George Weigel listed a number of elements of Ratzinger’s thought. The most important element of all, Weigel says, was friendship. Friendship was the key to all his thinking. “Friendship with Jesus Christ” was his “one great theme … the beginning, the sine qua non, of the Christian life. And fostering that friendship was the whole purpose of the Church.”

This is a hopeful word to all of us. We do not need to have brilliant minds to grasp that friendship with Jesus needs to be the first and the last thing that is said about us! And indeed, what is the Church for? Its “whole purpose” is, yes, to help people enter into friendship with Jesus.

There was criticism of the sermon Pope Francis delivered at Benedict’s funeral for its failure to sum up Benedict’s life. Indeed, the sermon has but one explicit connection with Benedict, and that is its final line: “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever!” There is nothing about Benedict’s life in it, but only this final vocative, “faithful friend of the Bridegroom,” Jesus Christ, with the prayer that he will hear Christ’s voice “now and forever.”

Francis’ sermon, however, should not be criticized. A funeral is not the time to praise the departed, however praiseworthy the deceased might have been. We do not gather at a funeral in order to sum up the meaning of the life of a person who has died. Rather, a funeral is the time to turn to God as one of our fellow Christians passes out of this world. We pray God’s mercy; we pray God’s forgiveness; we pray God’s reception.

When I was a new priest, my rector, the Rev. Michael Webber, drove us to the funeral of a priest in our region. This priest had been a college chaplain at the time of his death; he had died at a relatively young age. The funeral was in a quintessentially Anglican chapel of cool Hudson Valley stonework and stained glass; the college’s president, as I recall, was playing a mournful cello solo to the side. I found it all quite moving. But my rector was outraged.

It was the sermon that touched it off. He explained to me in the drive home: at a funeral, we should not be praising the departed. He later added that he had told his wife that if he were to die and the bishop started praising him at his funeral, she was to stand up in her pew and shoot the malefactor!

The classic Book of Common Prayer liturgies are clear. First, they are clear that a funeral is caused by someone dying, that the service is not a “thanksgiving for the life” but rather “the burial of the dead.” Second and most telling, the only thing to be said about the dead person in the liturgy is his or her name. All the rest is about God: about Jesus’ gift of himself to us, poured out on the cross, his hand reaching forth to receive us to himself; about Jesus’ turning himself over to his Father and entrusting everything to him.

Now it seems to me that Pope Francis’ sermon is saturated with Scripture in a way that one can understand every word of it as applying to Benedict. He begins with Luke 23: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” words that Jesus spoke as he was dying, words that manifestly fit Benedict at the time of his death. Francis says, moreover, they are words that apply to every pastor throughout life — as indeed (we may understand) they applied to Benedict throughout his pastoring of the church. Along the way, Francis brings in Jesus’ post-resurrection conversation with Peter in John 21, which pertains to the intrinsic connection of loving him and feeding his sheep. The listener perhaps has heard it said that Benedict’s final words were of love for Jesus.

When each of us comes to the end, our résumé will be no better than straw and will not be worth uttering. What matters will be that we reach out our hand to the one who came down from heaven to stretch out his loving hand to us.


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