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Day 4: Joseph! Joseph!

Fr Paul MossFr. Paul Moss is the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Birmingham.  He proclaimed the Gospel at Blessed John Paul II’s requiem Mass, where Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) presided.
I first met Pope Benedict when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger back in 1999. It was during my first year as a seminarian training for the priesthood at the Venerable English College in Rome. A few years previously a seminarian from the North American College in Rome had been on a summer pastoral placement in my home parish of Bicester, near Oxford. Upon my arrival in Rome I quickly learned that within my first few weeks there that same American student was about to be ordained as a deacon in St Peter’s basilica by Cardinal Ratzinger. I had already read some of the theological writings of this wonderful theologian and was very excited to be able to see him in person. My first memory of the ordination was Cardinal Ratzinger stopping to kiss a young baby during the entrance procession. This gentle and spontaneous act struck me very much and seemed to completely disprove the fierce reputation with which many commentators wished to portray him. I was reminded of this years later, in 2010, during Pope Benedict’s state visit to Britain. As the Holy Father travelled around the United Kingdom in his ‘Popemobile’ I was again struck by the way many mothers wanted their young infants to be embraced and blessed by this most caring and gentle of pastors.

The second memory that remains with me from that ordination day is the superb homily that Ratzinger gave in which he thanked the parents of the young men being ordained for their generosity in their gift of their sons to the Church.

During my years of study in Rome I did not see the future Pope on many occasions but I do recall once seeing him crossing St Peter’s Square on his way to work, dressed in a simple black cassock and beret. He looked just like a humble village parish priest! Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that he described himself, after his election as Pope in 2005, as “a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.” And such he has certainly proved to be over these last eight years.

Cardinal Ratzinger beretI am sure many of us have vivid memories of those strange but beautiful days after the death of our beloved Blessed Pope John Paul II. It was of course Cardinal Ratzinger who, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, presided over the late Pontiff’s funeral rites and guided the Church during the sede vacante period, a period we are about to enter upon again on 28th February as Pope Benedict retires. I shall never forget the Requiem Mass at which I was so privileged to be able to proclaim the gospel as a deacon. The Mass was celebrated by Ratzinger whose homily again was excellent. He was obviously emotional. At the end of his sermon the crowd was clapping & chanting. I think some were even shouting, Joseph, Joseph! I recall him raising his eyes to heaven in a gesture of half-embarrassment and half good-natured despair, but with a smile on his face. As he brought his eyes back to the square his gaze met mine and I answered him with a knowing yet self-conscious smile. That was a beautiful moment for me!

Fr. Paul proclaiming the Gospel at Pope John Paul II’s funeral

The next few days saw the preparations for the conclave that would elect Benedict XVI. Another memory that will always remain with me is the homily he preached at the opening Mass of the conclave. With a simple, gentle and unassuming authority he spoke about the destructive power of what he called the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ – a phrase he has used since and which I believe goes to the heart of the problems of our own Western culture: intolerance in the name of tolerance, we might say.

It is, perhaps above all, for his gentle yet firm teaching that he will be most remembered. A friend of mine who works in the Vatican is sure that we will still be reading some of Benedict’s writings in a thousand years. Another friend of mine once put it like this: “I could walk into the fires of hell holding that man’s hand and feel utterly safe”.

Well, the Church is not about to walk into hell because Our Lord has promised us that the gates of the underworld will never prevail against His body, the Church. But we enter uncertain waters. We are all the more safe, however, and all the more certain of our way because of the wise and holy example of this blessed of pastors.

Let us pray for Pope Benedict as he begins the last stage of his earthly pilgrimage to our heavenly homeland and pray that his successor will be every bit as wise and holy, and bring a fresh vigour to the role of guiding the Church.

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