Bishops from across Canada, including Calgary’s Bishop William McGrattan, pictured, celebrated Masses to commemorate Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Photo by Quinton Amundson

Catholics honour a great theological mind

  • January 13, 2023

“This man of the Word of God could touch those who hear him and of those who read his writings because it was clear he wasn’t doing theology from the neck up. He is someone who is in love with the Lord.”

With these words, spoken mere hours following the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on New Year’s Eve, Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins launched into a commemoration for the late pope, soon to be followed by his brother bishops from across the nation.

Collins delivered his sermon at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in Toronto. Earlier in the day, Collins wrote to clergy, parish and pastoral staff to implore each of the archdiocese’s 225 parishes to offer a Mass for Benedict XVI before the funeral at St. Peter’s Square on the morning of Jan. 5. 

“He is someone who said, ‘I am someone who is a worker in the vineyard of the Lord — nothing more than that,’ ” continued Collins. “Indeed, he gave us a model. Just as the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, He came in humility at Bethlehem and walked amongst us. His faithful servant, Joseph Ratzinger, touched by the Word of God, touched deeply in the heart imitated Christ in that. Gently, clearly, truly a co-worker in the truth.”

A towering sentiment that instantly emerged in the vast sea of tributes penned and broadcasted to honour the head of the Catholic Church from 2005 to 2013 is that the man possessed one of the greatest theological minds in modern time. 

Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton opened his homily at a special Mass in Benedict’s honour on Jan. 4 by extolling the former Bishop of Rome’s prodigious writing talents. 

“Meditation on his many writings will be of great profit to the people of God for generations to come,” said Smith. “While I, like others, have benefitted from the depth and clarity of thought conveyed in his theological publications, what has touched me most deeply and has guided my growth and faith have been his encyclical letters, homilies and catechesis offered during his reign as successor to St. Peter. 

“In them I have always been astonished at his penetrating insight into the Word of God, and his ability to draw out and apply its deepest meaning to the everyday life of a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Smith proceeded to offer a case study of Benedict XVI’s acumen for illuminating the Word of God. The Gospel reading chosen for this Mass for the Dead, celebrated at St. Joseph’s Cathedral Basilica, was John 1: 43-51. This story sees Philip and Nathanael called to be disciples of Christ. 

Smith gave a nod to Benedict’s celebrated mind by directly sharing the thoughts the late pontiff had about this particular passage on Oct. 4, 2006, during a general audience in St. Peter’s Square. On that day Benedict drew closer attention to Nathanael’s sharp reply to Philip.

Benedict fixed his attention on Jesus telling Nathanael He saw him when he was under the fig tree, and Nathanael becoming so moved by Jesus knowing everything about him that he declares Jesus the Son of God, the King of Israel.

“Nathanael’s words shed light on a twofold, complementary aspect of Jesus’ identity: He is recognized both in His special relationship with God the Father, of whom He is the only-begotten Son, and in His relationship with the people of Israel, of whom He is the declared King, precisely the description of the awaited Messiah. We must never lose sight of either of these two elements because if we only proclaim Jesus’ heavenly dimension, we risk making Him an ethereal and evanescent being; and if, on the contrary, we recognize only His concrete place in history, we end by neglecting the divine dimension that properly qualifies Him.”

Two hours southward, from Calgary’s ornate St. Mary’s Cathedral, Bishop William McGrattan also delivered a Holy Mass to memorialize the late pope on Jan. 4. 

Like Smith, McGrattan weaved the Gospel reading into his homily paying homage to the son of Maria and Joseph Ratzinger Sr. The Calgary bishop highlighted John 1:35-42, the calling of Andrew and Simon Peter. 

McGrattan told the crowd that bishops and priests from around the world were invited to choose from a selection of passages commonly read during a Mass for the Dead. McGrattan opted not to do so, because the Gospel encouraged for Jan. 4 fits perfectly. 

“I think it is providential once again that the readings presented to us this day, during this time of the Christmas season, are readings that help us reflect to some degree on the life of Pope Benedict, but more importantly I think to reflect through these readings his witness in the role of pope and the legacy of his teaching,” said McGrattan.

McGrattan highlighted the first reading, which was 1 John 3:7-10, where John warns against deception and that “whoever sins belongs to the devil, because the devil has sinned from the beginning.” 

McGrattan said this reading evokes the spirit of a homily. It is an early teacher of the faith urging the “little children” of the world not to be misdirected away from God.

“Pope Benedict, I think throughout his ministry, portrayed the same role as this early homilist, this teacher. In his teaching, he has often been characterized, and in other circles criticized, for holding to tradition. But in some ways, he is simply pointing to the revelation, to the Word of God from the scriptural tradition we receive for only one purpose: so that we might not be misled, and we might not fall into the temptation of error.”

Also, reminiscent in the spirit of John’s epistle, McGrattan said Benedict was known as a critic “of our modern sense of moralism.”

“He talked about the ‘tyranny of relativism,’ where we have fallen into this temptation of judging what is right or wrong by simply subjective standards,” he said. “This was at stake in this early epistle. There was an argument about what was sin and what wasn’t sin. Who is a child of God and who is a child of the devil? And how Pope Francis and also Pope Benedict continue to talk about the objectivity of truth as it is applied to our understanding of the human person and the moral life.”

He said Benedict can be known as a man who exemplified humility, a servant willing to get on his knees to wash the feet of his fellow disciples. 

Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller feted Pope Benedict XVI on Jan. 5, also alluding to Benedict championing the bond between faith and intellect.

“Moreover, Benedict insisted on the harmonious relationship between faith and reason,” Miller said. “For him, a passionate faith, if untempered by critical reasoning, is just as dangerous as a rationality which ignores our transcendent nature. Faith is strengthened, not threatened, by the proper use of reason.”

Miller went on to say that the late pope’s resignation was an act “of profound humility, courage and great spiritual freedom. This gesture was truly radical. Without any sentimentality or posturing, Benedict handed back the papal office to the one who founded it, to the Lord Jesus Himself.”

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