Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The days that followed the death of Pope John Paul II were truly extraordinary, momentous days in the history of the Church. They were a time of great grace. The pain and sense of loss at the death of Pope John Paul were somehow mitigated by the grace of the Risen Christ which showed forth in the faith, the prayer and sense of unity expressed by countless numbers of people, both in Rome and elsewhere. The response of millions and the grace of those days were a great gift of Pope John Paul to the Church and helped in some way to bring together the whole world in a sense of common humanity, sorrow and unity.
For me, that time, and especially the days preceding the conclave were, with my fellow-Cardinals, days of prayer, a kind of ‘waiting’ as the first apostles and disciples must have waited in the Upper Room for the gift of the Holy Spirit that came upon them at Pentecost. They were very fruitful and grace-filled days and a marvellous preparation for the conclave itself. It is hard to convey to you the atmosphere of the Cardinals in the great Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. There we all sat beneath those marvellous frescoes of Michael Angelo depicting the great events of our faith. I particularly remember standing in front of the fresco of the Last Judgment with my vote in hand and declaring openly, “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.” There was a sense of one’s own grave responsibility but also a sense that the whole Church was praying for us and would guide our minds and hearts to a final decision which would be for the good of the Church. And so it happened. Immediately the new Pope was elected all of us in the Sistine Chapel burst into spontaneous and joyous applause. The vast numbers of people that rushed immediately to St. Peter’s also expressed in some way the relief, the faith, the joy of the Catholic Church and beyond, at having at last a Pope. And so was acclaimed Pope Benedict XVI.
After the Pope is elected and has accepted his office, one by one, each Cardinal goes up and kisses his ring. When I did so, I said to him that he would have the prayers, the support and the loyalty of all the Catholics in England and Wales. The Holy Father responded “Please assure all of the people of England and Wales of my warmest greetings and my prayers.” Tonight at this Mass, we pray for Pope Benedict, that the Lord will give him the grace and strength to carry out the task of Peter, to confirm his brethren and to be the centre of unity and truth of the whole Church. We give thanks to the Lord for giving us once more Peter in our midst to guide and shepherd us.
No wonder Pope Benedict said to us at our first Mass together, “I undertake this special ministry, the Petrine ministry, at the service of the Universal Church, with humble abandonment to the hands and the providence of God. And it is to Christ, in the first place, that I renew my total trustworthy faith”. It is right that we should remember tonight that the Church is founded on the faith of Peter. We have just had read to us the events that happened in the region of Caesarea Philippi two thousand years ago, when the Lord Jesus said to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. And then, he heard the words of Our Lord: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church”. Whatever weaknesses every Pope must feel when elected to this supreme office, he may always count on the gift and strength of the Holy Spirit to be a faithful pastor of the flock of Christ.
It was strange that there was in the Church between the death of Pope John Paul on Saturday 2nd April and the election of our new Pope Benedict a real sense of incompleteness. I say this because the office of Peter, the Pope in the Church, is not just an added extra, meaning better administration and government. It is much, much more profound than that. Peter, as we see from the Gospel belongs to the very foundation of the Church. When Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd founded the Church, He entrusted the apostles with their mission to teach and preach that He Himself had been sent by the Father. However, in order that those who Jesus sent might be one and undivided, He put Peter at the head of the other apostles. In him he set up a lasting and visible source and foundation, both of the faith of the Church and of the unity within the Church. The events of the last few weeks have shown not only Catholics but all Christians – and in deed the whole of humanity – of the vital importance of the ministry and witness of Peter for today. Our Lord has assured us that that ministry will not pass away till the end of time.
So there is a sense which is recognised by the whole People of God that now, again, as the Church continues her pilgrimage through history, there is at its head a new pastor, a new shepherd, a new Pope who, with the bishops, will guide and teach and proclaim the revelation of God in Jesus, so that the Church may never fail but always be faithful to our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.
I assured Pope Benedict of our prayer and loyalty. Like Peter in the reading today, speaking to the poor and lame man, he too will be saying, “I have neither silver nor gold but I will give you what I have, in the Name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk”. Pope Benedict has given us indications of the way that he will walk, which is always in the way of Jesus Christ, Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He has chosen the name Benedict because he wishes to be like his predecessor a man of Reconciliation and of Peace. He also wishes to invoke the intercession of St Benedict, Patron of Europe, that his own ministry will be one of prayerful contemplation of the work of God and building of His kingdom in our world.
Pope Benedict has asked the Cardinals, and indeed the whole of the Episcopate throughout the world, to be united with him at the service of the Church and in the unity of faith, from which springs the effectiveness of the message of Christ in our world today. When I knelt before Pope Benedict I promised him the prayers and support of all the Catholics in England and Wales. This evening, at this Mass, we pray for Pope Benedict and, again I say, let us ask the Lord to give him the grace and the strength to carry out the task given him by Christ, to be Peter among the apostles, Peter for the Universal Church, Peter, on whose faith the Church is built. How often during this week have we had proclaimed to us also that other extract from the gospel when Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love Me?” and Peter’s reply was, “Lord, you know all things, you know I love you” . And Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep”.