ROME – Pope Francis celebrated a memorial Mass for the late Pope Benedict XVI and all cardinals and bishops who have died over the past year Friday, pointing to compassion and humility as virtues par excellence for the church’s pastors.
Speaking to attendees at his Nov. 3 Mass, Francis asked God “to grant us a compassionate gaze and a humble heart. May we never tire of asking this, for it is on the path of compassion and humility that the Lord gives us his life, which triumphs over death,” he said.
Francis celebrated Friday’s Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, closing a trifecta of prayers and liturgies commemorating the afterlife, including a Wednesday Angelus address for All Saints Day and a Thursday Mass at a Rome War Cemetery for All Souls Day.
Benedict XVI, who in 2013 made history by becoming the first pope in 500 years to resign the papacy, died Dec. 31, 2022, ten years after his historic resignation. His death was followed shortly by that of Australian Cardinal George Pell, who passed away Jan. 10 due to complications after a routine hip surgery.
At least in the modern era, Friday marked the first time a sitting pope has celebrated a memorial Mass for his predecessor. It took on special significance given that both Benedict XVI and Pell were generally seen as more conservative than Francis, who is broadly perceived as friendly to the progressive wing of Catholicism.
In his homily Friday, Pope Francis said he was struck by the emphasis on compassion and humility in the day’s Gospel reading, during which he and his disciples are entering the city of Nain when they saw a procession heading in the other direction of a widowed mother who was going to bury her only son.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus when he saw the widow “had compassion on her…he was moved by compassion,” the pope said.
He recalled how Benedict in his first papal encyclical Deus Caritas Est wrote that “the program of Jesus is ‘a heart that sees.’”
“How many times did he keep reminding us that faith is not primarily an idea to be understood or a moral precept to be followed, but a person to be encountered?” he asked, saying, “That person is Jesus Christ, whose heart beats with love for us, whose eyes look with pity upon our suffering.”
Francis also noted that this passage marked the first time in the Gospel that Luke had referred to Jesus as “the Lord,” saying Jesus is recognized as the one who “exercises lordship over all things” in the description of “the very act of showing compassion for a widowed mother who lost, along with her only son, her reason for living.”
The raising of the young man from the dead, the gift of life that overcomes death, “has its source precisely there, in the compassion of the Lord, who is moved by death, the greatest cause of our suffering,” the pope said, stressing the importance of showing this same compassion to all those mourning the death of a loved one.
Jesus’s compassion is concrete, he said, noting that Jesus in his act of healing saw the procession and came forward to touch the bier on which the dead boy was laying without being asked, and despite the fact that touching the bier of a dead person at that time was seen as “unclean, defiling those who did so.”
“Jesus, however, cares nothing about that; his compassion makes him reach out to all those who suffer. That is God’s ‘style,’ one of closeness, compassion and tenderness,” he said.
Noting that Jesus tells the mother not to weep, Pope Francis said there is nothing wrong with weeping, and that Jesus himself wept in the Gospels, but he tells the woman this because “with the Lord tears do not last forever; they have an end.”
Jesus, he said, “has made our tears his own in order to take them away.”
He noted that on this occasion, Jesus did not ask the woman to have faith before performing a miracle, as he usually does in scripture.
This, Francis said, is because this particular miracle “has to do with an orphan and a widow, those whom the Bible, along with strangers, considers most alone and forsaken, having no one else to trust but God.”
“These are the people closest and dearest to the Lord. We cannot be close and dear to God if we ignore those who enjoy his protection and preferential love, for one day they will be the ones to welcome us to heaven,” he said.
Focusing on the virtue of humility, the pope said the orphan, the widow and the stranger “are ‘the humble’ par excellence: those who, placing all their hope in the Lord and not in themselves, have made God the center of their lives.”
“They no longer rely on their own strength, but on him and his unfailing care. Rejecting any presumption of self-sufficiency, they recognize their need for God and put their trust in him,” he said.
The humble and poor in spirit are the ones “who reveal to us the ‘littleness’ so pleasing to the Lord, the path that leads to heaven,” he said, saying God seeks out the humble, “those who hope in him and not in themselves and their own plans.”
“Dear brothers and sisters, this is Christian humility, which is not simply one virtue among others, but the basic disposition of life: believing ourselves to be in need of God, making room for him and putting all our trust in him,” he said.
Humility, Pope Francis said, allows a person to interact with God, who is himself humble, as he came down from heaven, lowering himself to meet humanity, and in doing so, “he does not impose himself; he makes room for us.”
“God is not only humble, but humility itself,” he said, noting that in the Holy Trinity, God’s identity is entirely a reference to the son, and the son’s identity is entirely a reference to the father.
In this sense, “God loves those who do not put themselves at the center: the humble, who most resemble him. That is why, as Jesus says, ‘those who humble themselves will be exalted.’”
Francis pointed to Pope Benedict XVI’s description of himself after his election, calling himself “a humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.”
“Indeed, Christians, especially the pope, the cardinals and the bishops, are called to be humble laborers: to serve, not to be served and to put the fruits of the Lord’s vineyard before their advantage. What a fine thing it is to renounce ourselves for the Church of Jesus!”
Pope Francis closed by asking attendees to pray “for our beloved deceased brethren,” saying, “Their hearts were pastoral, compassionate and humble, for the Lord was the center of their lives. In him may they find eternal peace.”
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