Christ’s promise fulfilled in those who assumed the seat of Peter

  • April 27, 2011

In his inaugural homily in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict concluded, “At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in St. Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: ‘Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!’ ”

Indeed, the whole Church will look back to that day — that’s the new feast day for Blessed John Paul. For the feast day’s Office of Readings in the breviary, an excerpt from the day’s “be not afraid” homily has been chosen.

The “be not afraid” inaugural homily remains one of the electrifying moments of the entire pontificate, and John Paul repeated the exhortation to Christian courage and witness over and over for nearly 27 years. Yet to go back to Oct. 22 means more than words; there are striking images from that day too.

During the inaugural Mass, the entire College of Cardinals processed to the new pope to show their fidelity and loyalty. One by one they knelt in front of his chair and kissed his ring. Yet when Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the Primate of Poland for 30 years at that point, approached the new Polish pope, John Paul tried to prevent him from kneeling. He rose from his chair, and as the old cardinal kissed the fisherman’s ring, the young pope embraced him with profound emotion, kissing his forehead, kissing the primate’s ring.

Cardinal Wyszynski, who was imprisoned for three years by the communists, kept the Polish Church vibrant and strong during the long night of its persecution. Without the wisdom of Wyszynski, the Polish Church may not have produced Wojtyla — John Paul II. Save for John Paul, Wyszynski may have been the greatest churchman of the 20th century. The Oct. 22 moment — so memorable that there is a statue of it at the Catholic University of Lublin — was a moment filled with history. The old warrior was handing over his command to the new.

Later in the same procession another cardinal came, this one even younger than John Paul — Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich. That encounter — two extraordinary men face to face, eye to eye — was not about the past, but opened a window to the future. John Paul is expressive, expansive, firmly seizing Ratzinger, even shaking him with vigourous affection; the reserved Ratzinger is slightly taken aback, rather shy before the new pope. The two personalities are clearly manifest. Now, 33 years later, the latter is beatifying the former, and declaring that unforgettable October day to be his feast.

I have the picture of John Paul and Ratzinger from Oct. 22 hanging in my rectory, and it often brings tears to the eyes. This week of John Paul’s beatification has brought so many images flooding back to the mind and the heart, and so many of those bring tears too.

Could Cardinal Ratzinger have imagined then what this new pope would do to him, would do with him? That he would call him to Rome to serve as the chief lieutenant of his papacy, that he would insist that he would remain to the end, despite being past the age of retirement, that it would fall to him to occupy the same chair of Peter, that as Benedict XVI he would complete what in many ways is a two-part millennial pontificate? Did John Paul know how important Cardinal Ratzinger would be? Could he have imagined that 33 years later — a Christological number! — that man would, as Pope, lead the Church in celebrating for the first time his feast day?

To look at the image — John Paul and Ratzinger — is to marvel at the shepherds the Lord has chosen for His Church. Had Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger never been elected universal pastor of the Church, each would have been celebrated as one of the most outstanding Christian scholars and teachers of his generation. To have both of them as bishop of Rome is to see the bright lines of Providence written across the threshold of the third millennium. The promise Christ made to Peter is being fulfilled in abundance.

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