His Excellency, The Most Reverend Glen John Provost, Bishop of Lake Charles, celebrated a Solemn Memorial Mass for the repose of the soul of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who passed away on Saturday, December 31, 2022. The Memorial Mass took place in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Lake Charles on the same day Pope Benedict was laid to rest in the grottos of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The former pontiff was 95 years old. Bishop Provost's homily follows.
Bishop Glen John Provost, D.D., M.A
Bishop of Lake Charles
Solemn Memorial Mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
Thursday, January 5, 2023
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
I recall when Pope Benedict XVI was elected Pontiff. How excited I was and surprised too! The media had painted such a negative picture of him as “God’s rottweiler” and all that foolishness that I concluded the College of Cardinals would not elect him. But somewhere deep down, I hoped. Like a child of seven on Christmas morning opening his gifts, I heard his name announced and became exhilarated. The unexpected had happened. The children at our parish school were just as exuberant in their reaction to the election. Glued to television screens, they cheered and screamed as though at a pep rally. You could hear the uproar across the parking lot at the rectory. One little girl ran into her third-grade classroom and shouted to the teacher, “Ms. LeBlanc, guess what? They’ve elected a rap singer as pope.”
A beautifully poetic expression reaching back to Greek antiquity reads as follows: “The owl of Minerva opens its wings at dusk.” The owl was, of course, the symbol of the goddess of wisdom—an allusion that is preserved in English with our saying “wise old owl.” To say that the owl opens its wings at the setting of the sun implies that a person or event is more wisely interpreted in retrospect. This Minerva image was referenced by an English journalist when Pope Benedict XVI visited England. The Pontiff addressed both houses of Parliament. The public received him ecstatically and seemed to absorb his every word as though the owl were opening its wings. I was reminded again of the owl when a well-read European friend wrote to me upon learning of Pope Benedict’s death. He observed, “[Pope Benedict] was one of the greatest servants that the Church has had over the last decades, and even further back. He has left us, but his considerable work remains.” And, finally, the owl spread its wings in our own Lake Charles. Soon after my appointment in 2007, a Protestant minister told me, “You know at Christmas I hurry back home after our services just to hear Pope Benedict’s message at his Midnight Mass.” None of these people are “conservative” or “rigid.” None are reactionaries fossilized in the past. They are simply inquiring observers, looking for answers, searching for the truth. Perhaps in Pope Benedict XVI they found a kindred spirit who could fulfill their quest. There was a saying in Rome during his pontificate: “People came to see John Paul II, but they came to listen to Benedict.” Many listened. And not just in Rome. Once I saw an editorial in the New York Times criticizing one of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s positions (i.e. the entry of Turkey into the E.U.). Then, I realized that to some he was a threat. But like all great thinkers he transcended his critics and remained a source of consolation for those who sought the truth.
Joseph Ratzinger defied labels. As a matter of fact, I hardly recognize him in the commentaries of the so-called “progressive” media, before or after his death. He sought the truth. He found it in reason, in faith, in logic, and in what was natural. To this extent he was very much like St. Thomas Aquinas. And these qualities placed him on the side of another great saint whom he admired, St. John Henry Newman. Both Aquinas and Newman were misinterpreted in their own lifetime, and both left legacies that like “the owl of Minerva” are best understood once the sun has set.
For me, one of the greatest contributions Pope Benedict XVI made was to help us, poor sinners, me included, regain an appreciation for the Sacred Scriptures. Our understanding of the Bible has suffered much over these last two hundred years. So-called scientific Biblical scholars have led us, perhaps unwittingly, into a dichotomy. Many either accept the Bible as literal fact—usually seen in opposition to science—or patronize the Bible, as mythology, a subject for academic dissection and literary analysis. Such is the legacy of many historical-critical studies.
In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI approached the Bible as an object of faith. About Jesus Christ the Scriptures are the primary witness. He reminded us that the Bible is a record of God’s Revelation in the life of His Word made Flesh. And this Sacred Scripture is not isolated. “The People of God—the Church—is the living subject of Scripture” (p. xxi). When we approach the Bible, we are entering a world larger than ourselves.
Jesus Christ lies at the heart of everything. In fact, all things find their beginning and end in Him. All things are understood better as they relate to Him. He is at the center of our understanding of the world, history, and, yes, ourselves. The life of faith, what we believe, and our moral life find their meaning and inspiration in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Pope Benedict XVI understood that for the Christian believer to live in the world today, he or she can no longer depend on the culture to provide cover and support. This is not the world of the Age of Faith or even the Counter-Reformation. We live in a world antagonistic to the Christian. The Church is constantly attacked, never given the benefit of doubt, mercilessly pursued by secularists, and for the most part marginalized by world leaders and governments. Yet, in this poisonous serpent’s den, the Church survives. Christendom is dead, to paraphrase Bishop Sheen, but Christianity is very much alive.
Pope Benedict XVI realized Christianity’s longevity. Therefore, for him the Church in the future would be diminished in size but with a more vibrant faith lived in smaller communities passionately dedicated to our Lord. Toward this end, the Church needed to regroup, hold fast to the truth, rediscover its identity, and restore its worship. For this reason, he left behind works such as The Spirit of the Liturgy, Truth and Tolerance, and God Is Near Us. He saw what he called the “dictatorship of relativism” as a major obstacle to truth and thus to Christianity in our world today. This is how he described it: “Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires” (Address of June 6, 2005). Ask any conscientious teacher, loving parent, or zealous priest if this be true. Ask the children who grew excited at a papal election. They will all answer “yes.” For Pope Benedict relativism is a fundamental problem in our culture that creates a vacuum too easily filled with power and destructive ideology. The antidote is the truth, and a people of faith courageous enough to be witnesses to that truth.
Another gift to understanding was Pope Benedict XVI’s defense of the Second Vatican Council. He taught that it was imperative that we see this Council within the perspective of what he called the “hermeneutic of continuity” (“Message to the Curia,” December 22, 2005). For him the Council could only be interpreted and seen properly through the lens of what had transpired before. Again, Pope Benedict was promoting the larger picture. What he called the “hermeneutic of rupture” was indeed harmful because it saw the Council in isolation, as though separated from its antecedents. In this Pope Benedict was faithful to the true spirit of the Council as articulated by Pope St. John XXIII, when at the Council’s inauguration, he said the Council’s purpose was “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without attenuation or distortion” (October 11, 1962). The challenge of our time is to transmit these timeless truths in a fashion and by means that a changing world can ultimately grasp and understand. The challenge remains.
The goal, the proper end of every pursuit, is to discover the Lord. Along with many others, I am convinced that this principle motivated his life. The nurse attending him in the early morning hours of his last day reported that Pope Benedict’s final words were, “Signore, ti amo,” “Lord, I love you.” Indeed, all the theological speculation, dogmatic statements, academic arguments, and scriptural reflections must serve one end and reach on conclusion: to love the Lord. In the book, Last Testament in His Own Words (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), Pope Benedict concluded his overview of a long life and work, its successes, and failures, with these words: “To be loved and to love another are things I have increasingly recognized as fundamental, so that one can live; so that one can say yes to oneself, so that one can say yes to another. Finally, it has become increasingly clear to me that God is not, let’s say, a ruling power, a distant force; rather he is love and he loves me—and as such, life should be guided by him, by this power called love” (p. 242).
Give this faithful servant eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in lasting peace. Amen.