BENEDICT: Faithful Friend of the Bridegroom
Moment in history.
Moment of grace!
Moment of Divine Providence!
I'm still amazed at the timing - that I should be here in Rome for the death and funeral of Pope Benedict XVI; that God has brought me here for a reason and a purpose that is yet unknown to me.
A few months ago I decided that I would come to Rome after Christmas instead of going home as I usually would. In part I needed to break away from habitual living, to live more freely for a week. Perhaps even to simply suit myself. The upcoming 80th birthday of Fr. John Fitzpatrick settled me on Rome rather than anywhere else. I want to honour him and this milestone in his life because he has been a very significant person in my life.
The original decision meant that I would miss the Living Family retreat due to take place in early January. But, out of the blue, completely independent of me, the date of the retreat was changed to February around the time I will be in Ireland for the Provincial Assembly. In this I recognise the work of Divine Providence.
I would recognise Divine Providence again when, two days after my arrival in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI died and it turned out that his funeral would take place the morning of January 5th. My flight back to London being scheduled for that evening. And Fr. Rory has arranged a ticket for me to concelebrate the Mass.
There are many who would give their eye teeth to be in my position and I want to honour their love for Benedict.
In a way I'm not worthy to be here because I would not have been an enthusiastic fan in the way that others are and perhaps I am not an enthusiastic fan of anyone now. A bit like my mother who said, “don’t look up or look down on anyone!” But I respect and honour each Pope who has served in my lifetime and meeting Pope John Paul II very special.
I have preferences but it's not for me to pick and choose Pope's according to my own likes and dislikes. There are aspects of each Pope that I resonate with and others that I don't. Respect and obedience are deeply engraved in me. Pope Benedict’s love for the person of Jesus is something inspiring, as are his courage and humility.
There is also a certain synchronicity between our lives in that I was elected Provincial on the day the conclave that elected him began. So our terms of service in leadership began more or less at the same time, his being obviously the greater and more onerous. And it may seem arrogant of me to even think of myself in the same paragraph as him but each of us is where God has placed us. For any one of us, the role we are given in life is absolutely sacred. The role is appropriate to our gifts. We are given the gifts necessary and sometimes those gifts are clothed in great suffering.
I think both of us were somewhat burdened by our calling and it was Pope Benedict, quoting Von Baltasar, who gave expression to what I was experiencing:
reflection on the authority of Peter, Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks about the
position one must occupy in leadership. “The lowest place, which is where the servus servorum (servant of the
servants) must stand, the place of final contempt and insult, the rubbish-heap
on which one is ‘a worm and not a man’, this place which no man occupies
willingly, is precisely the place where the office which he exercises may
regain the greatest possible respect and credibility.”
After six years I concluded that I should not continue any longer in my position. He did so after eight years. So I have empathy for him and think that if he knew me he would also have empathy for me. In this I can truly say that I love him, that he would have loved me. So, whatever his failings and whatever his critics say of him rightly or wrongly, I think of him as a man of Love.
Divine Providence has me here for a reason, not of my own choosing. It is God’s own choosing and it is God's love that has done this. "This honour is for all His faithful."
In the afternoon of January 3rd Derry and I went together to St. Peter's to join the thousands of other pilgrims lining up to pay respects to Pope Benedict. In itself it was a grace to be part of that simple procession and somehow to represent the many people who would love to be in my place. I pray for them, prayed for every person I know and also for some very urgent requests that have been given to me. I pray also for those who were treated badly and abused by church officials during Benedict’s papacy, those who see no reason to mourn his passing.
Seeing his small, frail body I think of the words of the Wisdom of Solomon, "For no king has had a different beginning of existence;
It was just coming up to the Hour of Mercy – 3.00pm – when we passed the body, and this again is another moment of Divine Providence so we made our way to a side chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved and there prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet silently.A priest was hearing confession in many languages including English. I thought to avail of the sacrament so that the grace of this time might completely fill me, thereby making me a better instrument in God’s hands. Alas, it was not to be!
I joined what I understood to be the queue. The steward indicated that I was in the right place – third in line - so I knelt, examined my conscience and contemplated. And the Word that came spontaneously to me in that contemplation was from John 5 – the cripple at the pool of Bethesda. Every time he tried to get into the pool of healing, someone else jumped in before him. And that’s exactly what happened to me. Italians don’t seem to understand queues, the steward disappeared and I’m not aggressive enough. So every time I moved in the direction of the pool of Mercy that is the confessional, someone else jumped in before me. So I gave up, not in frustration but with a smile, for I figured that Mercy would come to me directly as He did with the man in the Gospel.
We met up with Rory and the three of us went for a coffee and that joy of brotherhood enfolded us as it has done all this time in Rome. “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.”
The morning of January 5th Rory and I headed off for St. Peter’s Square at 7.45am meeting up with Derry and other Pallottines from the Generalate, some of whom I had met during my time as Provincial. It was a bitterly cold morning with fog enshrouding the Basilica, the dome being completely invisible.
I had come to Rome ill-prepared for an event such as this, without suitable clothing. Not even a clerical shirt! Daniel Rochetti from the General Council said, “you came as a tourist and now you get all these spiritual blessings!” John Fitzpatrick provided me with shirt and collar, plus alb and stole so that I felt clothed by him and somehow bore him to this sacred moment which he himself was unable to attend. I also wore Roisin’s scarf, not only as protection from the cold but as a prayer for her. Prayed of course for each member of my family by name and many others besides. Names came cascading through my mind and I presented each one to God.
What a privilege to be there and what a beautiful, simple, dignified and uplifting Mass it was. I keep marvelling at the Providence, keep acknowledging the privilege. And lovely too to hear the beautiful voice of a woman from Donegal reading so clearly and powerfully the Word of God.
Mass was preceded by the Rosary which was good preparation, taking us from our distractedness into the Sorrowful Mysteries of Christ.
I am struck by the sound of the voice of Pope Francis – the beauty and tenderness of it. The immediacy and intimacy. Sound matters.
During Christmas I pondered the sound of God’s voice in the baby Jesus, the wordless sound before Jesus learned to speak. This is a most precious sound, this sound of God’s voice, its tone, even in its hungered crying.
It is the sound of God’s voice that I sensed, heard in Pope Francis. And even though I understood some of what he said, it was the presence of God that I felt in the sound of his servant’s voice. A frail servant, an imperfect servant – and by his own admission a sinful servant - but God’s chosen servant. And I was struck too by the fact that the sunlight broke through the fog and rested on him as he gave his homily. It was like a transfiguration.
The interplay of fog and sunlight was also beautiful, particularly over the dome of St. Peter’s which was often completely hidden and then suddenly the cross and orb would gleam. And disappear again.
God reveals Himself in such moments. Moses entered into the thick cloud of darkness “where God was” and God spoke to him face to face. The voice of the Father spoke in the cloud at the Transfiguration of Jesus. The shadow of the Most High covered Mary as she conceived Jesus in her womb. He is the light that shines in the darkness, a light that no darkness can overcome.
The orb and cross of St. Peter’s dome brought me back to a dream I had as a boy during a troubled time in my life when I was about ten years old. In the dream Jesus was standing on the orb on top of the Abbey church in Galway and I couldn’t stop myself from genuflecting time and time again in adoration.
I adore Him now in St. Peter’s Square, adore Him with my entire being in this moment of grace, this moment in history and I marvel again that I am here. Who am I at all? Who am I but one who is chosen among the multitude of the chosen in this place and throughout all the world. I am utterly grateful for what God is doing, even when I cannot understand the complexities and contradictions of this life. I am utterly grateful in this moment and forever.