“I am the good shepherd,” says the Lord.
Exactly ten years ago last Saturday, two men sat together under the dome of St. Peter’s basilica. Since that day, both of these two men have become very famous. It was the Mass to begin the papal conclave in 2005, concelebrated by all the Cardinal electors. One of these two men soon became Pope Benedict XVI. Eight years later, the other one became Pope Francis.
That day, the first of these two men actually gave the homily. Cardinal Ratzinger was then the Dean of the College of Cardinals, so it was his duty to preach the sermon at the beginning of the conclave. In his homily, he made the point that Christ had brought a time of jubilee, the ‘year of favor,’ to the earth. Pope Francis cited the same idea when he recently declared that we as a Church will celebrate a jubilee year, a Year of Mercy, beginning this December.
Christ has revealed the face of the Father, by dying on the cross for us. Now we live in the time of grace, the time of sincere love, the time of divine mercy. Cardinal Ratzinger said that in April 2005. Pope Francis said it in April 2015.
I know it might make me sound nostalgic and old, but I think it’s a good idea for us to imagine both Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Bergoglio concelebrating that particular Mass on April 18, 2005.
They both grieved the loss of a beloved friend who had died two weeks earlier. They both, I am sure, could hardly imagine the world without Pope John Paul II.
I am also sure that neither Cardinal Ratzinger nor Cardinal Bergoglio had any serious thought at that moment about becoming pope himself. They were praying fervently at the holy altar, praying that Christ the Good Shepherd would guide them, together with all the Cardinals, to do their sacred duty well.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily that day made a mark on me personally. Of course I was paying attention to everything, watching all the Youtubes, and reading all the translations of everything. It was in that homily that Cardinal Ratzinger gave his famous diagnosis of the “dictatorship of relativism,” the contemporary tendency to tolerate everything except the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must have the courage to preach the truth with love, he said.
Now, I myself don’t claim to be any kind of particularly respectable priest. I hope I teach orthodox doctrine, since I hardly have anything else to offer. I have above-average skills in solving crossword puzzles, but that’s about the extent of my talents. So I don’t hold myself out as any great shakes.
But I can honestly say that I have been, and am, willing to die for the fact that there is such a thing as truth, such a thing as The Truth. And that Jesus Christ teaches it, that Jesus Christ is it. If the dictatorship of relativism asks me to choose between Christ the Truth and more days on this earth, I hope to shout Viva Cristo Rey while they shoot, God help me.
Pope Benedict, that day before he became Pope Benedict, was saying: ‘The truth is that Christ brings the Father’s loving mercy.’ Now, ten years later, Pope Francis is saying, ‘The truth is that Christ brings the Father’s loving mercy.’
Newspapermen, breathless anchorwomen, and other associated television chatterers have a tendency to paint a bad Pope Benedict/good Pope Francis picture. Meanwhile, plenty of bloggers, magazine columnists, and experts on the Sacred Liturgy, like to paint the good Pope Benedict/bad Pope Francis picture.
But I really think we should meditate on the two of them concelebrating that particular Mass on that particular day, April 18, 2005. Let’s see them there, beneath the huge dome, among their brother Cardinals, praying the Mass at the tomb of St. Peter. Praying that the merciful Lord would guide His Church into the future, so that all the people of the world could reach true fulfillment as children of God.
Neither of them were praying, “Lord, make me the pope!” We can say that for sure. And we can likewise be sure that neither of them were praying, “Lord, whatever you do, don’t make Bergoglio pope!” or “Don’t make Ratzinger pope!”
I think we can imagine that they were both humbly praying something like, “Lord, give us the shepherd we need. May Your holy will be done. Give us the loving shepherd, after Your own Heart, that You have chosen.”
Now, how do we know so clearly that they both prayed more or less like this, in their innermost hearts, on that day? Because we know what they both are, deep down. We know what they both have in common, which makes their differences, real as those differences may be, seem small.
Both of these two men, Ratzinger and Bergoglio, Pope-Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis—both have lived their long lives as devout Catholic priests. They are both the same, fundamentally: prayerful, dutiful priests. They both have really only wanted to do one thing: shepherd the flock according to the Heart of Christ. I, for one, admire them both and love them both very much. Above all, because they are such beautiful priests.
Let’s thank the Lord especially at Mass on Good-Shepherd Sunday for all the prayerful, dutiful shepherds He has given us in our lives. None of us would be here right now, if it weren’t for the shepherds we have had. The priests who gave us our sacraments of initiation, who have heard our confessions, and who have fed us from the holy altar with the medicine of immortality, the flesh and blood of Christ our God. Thank you, Lord, for guiding us through the shepherds you have given us!
And Viva Papa Francesco!