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“How do we as Christians respond to the question of death?” was the problem posed by Pope Benedict XVI Saturday morning as together with his closest collaborators from the Curia, he celebrated Mass in suffrage of the cardinals and bishops who died in the course of the past year.
Gathered around the high altar of St Peter’s basilica, Pope Benedict spoke to the assembly of our relationship with death and the dead, evoking the atmosphere of the recent liturgical feasts of All Saints and All Souls, during which faithful traditionally visit the gravesides of loved ones.
Cemeteries, he said speak of how our deceased lived, they are “sorts of assembly points, in which the living meet their dead and …rediscover the bonds of communion that death could not break”.
Benedict XVI then evoked the Roman catacombs, describing them as “peculiar cemeteries” where descending to their corridors, “it is as if we cross an immaterial threshold and enter into communication with those custodied within, their past, made of joys and sorrows, losses and hopes. This occurs because death is still relevant to man today just as then, and even if many things of the past have become alien to us, death is still the same”.
Yet “faced with this reality, human beings of all ages look for a glimmer of light that brings hope that still speaks of life”. As Christians, he said, “we respond with faith in God, based on Christ’s victory over death on the Cross and His Resurrection that opened death to the promise of Eternal Life”. “This is life at its fullness: life in God, a life which we can now only catch glimpses of, like blue sky through a fog”.
Below a Vatican Radio translation of the Holy Father’s Homily
Venerable Brothers,Dear Brothers and Sisters!
The atmosphere of the Communion of Saints and the commemoration of the faithful departed is present and alive in our hearts, which the liturgy of the past few days helped us to experience intensely. In particular, visits to gravesides have allowed us to renew bonds with loved ones who have left us; death, paradoxically, preserves what life can not hold. How our deceased lived, what they loved, feared and hoped for, what they rejected, we discover in a very singular way from the graves, which are almost like a mirror of their existence, of their world: they call to us and lead us to re-establish a dialogue which death has placed in crisis. Thus, cemeteries are a kind of assembly point, in which the living meet their dead and with them rediscover the bonds of communion that death could not break. And here in Rome, in those peculiar cemeteries that are the catacombs, we feel, as in no other place, the deep bonds with ancient Christianity, to which we feel so close. As we enter the corridors of the catacombs - as well as those of the cemeteries of our cities and our countries - it is as if we cross an immaterial threshold and enter into communication with those custodied within, their past, made of joys and sorrows, losses and hopes. This occurs because death is still relevant to man today just as then, and even if many things of the past have become alien to us, death is still the same.
Faced with this reality, human beings of all ages look for a glimmer of light that brings hope, that still speaks of life, and visits to cemeteries also express this desire. But how do we as Christians respond to the question of death? We respond with faith in God, with a look of solid hope that is based on the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then death opens to life, to eternal life, which is not an infinite duplication of the present time, but something entirely new. Our faith teaches us that true immortality to which we aspire is not an idea, a concept, but a relationship of full communion with the living God: it is being in His hands, in His love, and becoming in Him one with all the brothers and sisters that He created and redeemed, with the whole of creation. Our hope then rests on the love of God that shines from the Cross of Christ, and that resonates in the heart the words of Jesus to the good thief, "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). This is life at its fullness: life in God, a life which we can now only glimpse at like blue sky through the fog.
In this atmosphere of faith and prayer, dear Brothers, we are gathered around the altar to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice in suffrage for the Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops who, during the past year, have ended their earthly existence. In particular, we recall the beloved Brothers Cardinals John Patrick Foley, Antonio Bevilacqua, José Sánchez, Ignace Moussa Daoud, Luis Aponte Martinez, Rodolfo Quezada Toruño, Eugenio de Araujo Sales, Paul Shan Kuo-hsi, Carlo Maria Martini, Fortunato Baldelli. We extend our affectionate remembrance to all the archbishops and bishops who have died, asking the Lord, gracious, merciful and just (cf. Ps 114), to concede them the eternal reward promised to the faithful servants of the Gospel.
Looking back at the witness of these our venerable brothers, we can recognize in them those disciples who were "meek," "merciful," "pure in heart", "peacemakers" of whom we heard in the Gospel passage (Matthew 5:1-12) : friends of the Lord, trusting in his promise, even amid difficulties and persecutions, they kept the joy of faith, and now live in the house of the Lord forever, enjoying the heavenly reward, filled with happiness and grace. The pastors whom we remember today have, in fact, served the Church faithfully and with love, facing sometimes costly tests, in order to ensure attention and care to the flock entrusted them. The variety of their skills and tasks, were an example of diligent supervision, of wise and zealous dedication to the Kingdom of God, providing a valuable contribution to the post-conciliar season, a time of renewal throughout the Church.
The Eucharistic table, to which they drew near, first as faithful and then, every day, as ministers, anticipates most eloquently what the Lord promised in the "Sermon on the Mount": the possession of the Kingdom of Heaven, taking part in the banquet of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Let us pray that this comes to pass for all. Our prayer is nourished by firm hope that "does not disappoint" (Rom 5:5), as guaranteed by Christ who wanted to live the experience of death in the flesh to triumph over it with the miraculous event of the Resurrection. "Why look among the dead among the living? He is not here, he is risen "(Luke 24:5-6). This message of the angels, proclaimed on Easter morning at the empty tomb, has come down to us through the ages, and offers us, in this liturgical assembly, the main reason for our hope. Indeed, "if we have died with Christ - Saint Paul reminds us alluding to what happened at Baptism - we believe that we shall also live with him" (Rom 6:8). It is the same Holy Spirit, through whom God's love has been poured into our hearts, to ensure that our hope is not in vain (cf. Rom 5:5). God the Father, rich in mercy, that He gave His only Son to death while we were still sinners, How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him (cf. Rom 5.6 to 11)? Our righteousness is based on faith in Christ. He is the "Just," foretold in the Scriptures, it is thanks to his Paschal Mystery that, crossing the threshold of death, our eyes will see God, contemplate His face (cf. Job 19.27 a).
The singular human existence of the Son of God is accompanied by that of his Blessed Mother, who, alone among all creatures, we venerate Immaculate and full of grace. Our Brother Cardinals and Bishops, whom we commemorate today, were loved with a preference by the Virgin Mary and have reciprocated her love with filial devotion. To her maternal intercession we now entrust their souls, that they She may introduce them into the eternal kingdom of the Father, surrounded by so many of their faithful for whom they have spent their lives. With her loving gaze may Mary watch over them, now that they sleep the sleep of peace waiting for the blessed Resurrection. And we raise to God our pray for them, sustained by the hope to meet them again one day, united forever in Heaven. Amen.
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