Homily by Father Kevin Kennedy on Pope Benedict XVI
Given January 1, 2023
Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption
On this solemnity of the Mother of God, January 1st, the first day of a new year, we wish you a blessed New Year, a blessed 2023, and the Lord himself at this time and in this place, which is the Mother Church of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of San Francisco, this cathedral in honor of Our Lady as its patroness, we are invited to hit the pause button for a moment, to stop, to focus, to allow ourselves to concentrate in a quiet and peaceful way away from detours and distractions, to reflect upon what really matters. What really matters in your life? What really matters in the life of the world today? What really matters in the life and worship and mission of the church?
At this moment, at this time, in this place, to my right is an image of a person who can help us journey to that place of inner reflection. Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who died yesterday, as we all know. Pope Francis, on the day that he died, spoke of him with two words, noble and kind. He said he was a truly noble and a truly kind man, and those words pierced my heart when I first heard them. I thought back to September 8th, last September, interestingly enough, the feast, another Marian feast of the Birth or Nativity of Our Lady, when another world leader, Queen Elizabeth II died. And the same words were used in reference to her, noble, not just in terms of her external title as Queen, but an inward nobility, an inward kindness. We could fill it in, authentic, warm, gracious, good, compassionate, caring, kind, all of the above.
And my heart is sad when people like this leave us, because I allow myself to think perhaps in more realistic or some might say darker moments. And you might allow yourself to think as well, what’s left? Who’s left? In a world where nobility and kindness are so apparently lacking wherever we look, lacking. There’s a hole in our hearts, there’s an emptiness, there’s something missing, and instinctively, intuitively, we know that. Even those who disagreed with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and some of his policies or theological principles, nevertheless recognized that he was authentic, that he truly believed what he taught, and that authenticity is so rare in our world today.
Truly noble and kind people sometimes have enemies. I remember going back to grammar school, to first grade. We had a schoolyard bully. I can’t remember his name. I wouldn’t say it anyway, if I did. He might still be alive, but he used to pick on one guy in particular named Bobby. I don’t even know if Bobby is still alive, but poor Bobby was a nice guy and the bully would pick on him and pick on him and badger him. And there was something about Bobby that he didn’t like, something lacking within himself.
Years later, I think maybe third or fourth grade, the bully had grown up enough, was self-reflective enough to say that about himself. He said, “I shouldn’t have picked on Bobby so much. He really is a nice guy.” That was as far as the bully could go, and then he got a sort of evil smile on his face, came back to being the bully, and he said, “Well, you know what they say, nice guys in this life, nice guys come in last.” Is that the kind of world that you want to live in? That I want to live in? That we want to live in? Is that the kind of Church that you or I want to live in? Is it the kind of people you or I, all of us want to be?
Yes, Pope Benedict XVI had enemies. Why did they dislike him so much? Because he wanted to spend his life talking about God and God’s invitation to you and to me and to us. And that inevitably meant he talked about something called truth, not your truth, my truth. Not something we make up as we go along, but objective reality, to conform to that reality revealed by God. Real truth. And that truth that challenges us and corrects or admonishes us, just as it enlightens and heals and ultimately transforms us. But that journey towards inner transformation is difficult, and we don’t want to endure the challenges or even hear about it from anyone else, and that brings out the bully in us at times.
Pope Benedict XVI talked about truth that is God’s gift to us, that allows us to discover our true destiny, our true dignity as created in the image and likeness of God, but also as persons who have fallen from that dignity and who constantly need to return to that dignity. For in our fallenness, we become captive to what the former Pope called a dictatorship of relativism. There’s no real truth out there. We all make it up as we go along. Your truth, my truth, everybody’s truth. But don’t you dare disagree with my truth, otherwise I’m going to destroy you socially, economically, politically, vocationally, whatever it might be.
And this leads us then to not the fullness to which we are called, but emptiness inside, a living hell, self-manufactured. It leads us not to the beauty for which we were created, but an inner ugliness, the ugliness of the bully, the tyrants of those who destroy other human beings. And Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the Lord calls us not to emptiness, but fullness; not to ugliness, but beauty; not to falsehood or lies, but to truth; and not to bullies, to be bullies towards one another, but to the goodness of God himself and his loving heart, that we are called to a new and different way of life, to a new and different way of vision. And that the emptiness that we have in our hearts, perhaps at this time, is that noble and kind people are becoming so rare, so few, that we will even forget what it means to be such, even within the church itself.
He called us, Pope Benedict XVI, not to himself or to his own theological perspectives, but to the Truth and the Beauty and the Goodness, which is not an abstract concept, but a Person, capital P, the Person of God, Emmanuel, God with us, God one of His own creation, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. And he called us to recognize that. That Lord is not up there, out there, not a principle, not a political ideology, not a socioeconomic concept or structure, but you. He is the One who created you, sustains you, created your soul, and therefore closer to you than you are to yourself.
And that presence is love, divine love, divine light, divine life itself, not persecuting or oppressing us, but setting us free from our own self-manufactured misery, and calling us to a love and a glory beyond all human comprehension or achievement. He is with us here in spirit today, inviting us to discover that person within our hearts to discover that journey, the greatest journey we will ever undertake in our lives, the journey of faith, the journey of hope, the belief, the trust that makes love – real love – love for God, and therefore one another possible.
He did his doctoral work on St. Augustine, one of whose writings haunts so many people. Augustine, who wrote that the most important task in our life is to heal the eyes of our hearts so that we might see God, to heal the eyes of our hearts from all darkness, from all emptiness, from all ugliness, so that we might see and be set free by and captivated by the Truth, the Beauty, the Goodness, and the very love of God Himself. That God who is present here in our word, in our gospel today, that God who is present by the power of His Spirit upon gifts of bread and wine that represent your lives, your hopes, your dreams, your desires as we begin this new year. That Spirit that transforms all of that bread and wine into that same Lord Jesus Christ in the mystery of this Eucharist, and that same Spirit that allows us to become He whom we receive, to overcome fear, to overcome malice, to overcome all that separates and alienates us from God dwelling within our deeper innermost self. To become He whom we receive in this Eucharist today and always.
And when the darkness, when the emptiness, and when the ugliness seems to surround us and overtake us, when we are tempted to despair, Pope Benedict XVI has one last word for us here today. As he was speaking to a group of students, former students visiting him recently, he smiled and he looked up and he said, “Just remember that in the end, the Lord himself will triumph.”