Wales’ First Minister attends Memorial Vespers service for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

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The First Minister of Wales, the Rt Hon Mark Drakeford MS, has attended a service of Memorial Vespers in Cardiff’s Catholic Cathedral joining the faithful as they gathered to pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who died on New Year’s Eve aged 95.

Archbishop Mark O’Toole, Archbishop of Cardiff and Bishop of Menevia, led the service and used his sermon to pay a warm tribute to Benedict XVI in the presence of ecumenical and interreligious guests as well as local dignitaries.

“He did not want to be served but to serve,” said Archbishop O’Toole. “He was a faithful and humble servant of the Gospel. “He gave out all the wealth of his heart, and intellect, and serving in this way, he has left us rich fruit, especially in the corpus of his writings, homilies, papal audiences, as well as his sensitive attention to the person in front of him.”

The Memorial Vespers for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI took place in Cardiff Cathedral at 6pm on Tuesday, 3 January 2023.


Full Sermon

Like many, I first encountered Joseph Ratzinger through his writings. Introduction to Christianity, his most read book, riveted me when I first came across it as a young man. Born out of a course offered to students and structured as a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, it was a text of extraordinary success. Apparently, his classes as a professor were standing room only. In the parish, in courses of catechesis, in accompanying students and seminarians in their discernment, or in personal reflection, it has become for me a sure guide in being able to drink deeply of the source of all Christian faith, rooted in the encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. As he would put it himself, “Faith is to find a ‘you’ who sustains me and in the incompleteness of every human encounter offers the promise of indestructible love, that not only aspires to eternity, but brings it to us.”[i]

Meeting Pope Benedict

Many years later when I met Pope Benedict at the Vatican I thanked him for this remarkable text. He was more interested to know how I had come to study theology at Oxford, and of our common interest in the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. He was delighted to know that Archbishop Rowan Williams, who had been my tutor there, also esteemed this Catholic theologian.

“The shepherds rejoiced, glorifying and praising God for what they had seen.” These words of the Gospel just read indicate the centre of the personality and of the life of our dear Pope Benedict – a shepherd who always rejoiced, glorified and praised God for the encounter with Jesus. One who, like Mary, continually pondered on the Word to grow deeply in love with that Word, which he encountered in the Scriptures, in the Liturgy and in the poor.

Joseph Ratzinger was born early on Holy Saturday morning in 1927, and on that very morning he was baptised, with the newly blessed water of ‘Easter night,’ which was then celebrated in the early morning. He was always grateful that his life was from the beginning immersed in the Paschal mystery. How poignant for us to hear in these days that his very last words were, “Lord, I love you.” He was, in a way, wounded by the beauty of a love of Jesus from his youth. This wound of beauty accompanied him to his very last breath. He was not satisfied with what he might call ‘a banal beauty.’ He was looking rather for beauty itself, infinite beauty, and thus he found in Christ true beauty, the path of life, the true joy.

A love affair with Christ

Already as a young man and priest he had this strong intuition on the centrality of Christ. Only Christ gives meaning to the whole of our life. Joseph Ratzinger always kept his heart and intellect fixed on Christ. In this way, he understood that Christianity is not an intellectual system, a package of dogmas, a moral code. Christianity is rather an encounter, a love story; an event with a person which always gives orientation and direction in life.

This love affair with Christ, this love story which was the whole of his life was, however, far from any superficial enthusiasm, or vague romanticism. Really seeing Christ, he knew that to encounter Christ meant to follow Christ. This encounter is a road, a journey, a journey that passes, as we know, from the psalms we have sung tonight – through our sins, our struggles, and the “snares of death.”

A selfless priest, scholar, theologian and pope

Joseph Ratzinger really did not want to live his life for himself. This was clearly seen from the moment of his priestly ordination. Although strongly attracted to theological research and teaching, the priesthood would always remain for him a primary dimension of his vocation. He lived it with joy, gratitude and a great sense of responsibility, uniting in a vital synthesis, liturgical prayer, the ministry of the Word and pastoral care exercised with a great depth of cultural reflection.

It is therefore quite wrong to consider his personality as that of a cold or abstract intellectual.

Pastoral sensitivity vibrated in the depths of his heart. This was true whether he worked as a university professor, or as Archbishop in Munich, or as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and as Pope.

Not to be served, but to serve

He practiced what he experienced in the Gospels. He did not want to be served but to serve. He was a faithful and humble servant of the Gospel. He gave out all the wealth of his heart, and intellect, and serving in this way, he has left us rich fruit, especially in the corpus of his writings, homilies, audiences, as well as his sensitive attention to the person in front of him.

He had a fearless and unfailing faith, which knew that the encounter with Christ remains central, for only in this way can God be given priority. From the primacy of God, he would teach, “it follows as a logical consequence that we must have at heart the unity of believers… This is why the effort for the common witness of faith of Christians is included,” and added to this is “the need for all who believe in God to seek peace together, to attempt to draw closer to one another in order to go together toward the source of Light.”[ii] This provides the basis for all interreligious dialogue.

Christian unity

Benedict XVI’s unwavering ecumenical commitment was expressed on many occasions, among which his meetings during his travels remain memorable: In Istanbul with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (2006), in London with Archbishop Rowan Williams (2010) as well through Archbishop Rowan’s regular visits to Rome, and in Erfurt with Lutherans in Martin Luther’s famous monastery (2011). There, in Erfurt, Benedict evoked with striking force Luther’s great question, “How can I have a merciful God?” in order to challenge ecumenical dialogue to seek union by going – or should one say returning – to the root of faith and not staying on the surface.

Other religions

It must be recognised that in the dialogue with other religions, there was no shortage of difficult moments during his pontificate: with the Jewish people, especially on the occasion of the Williamson case; with Islam, especially on the occasion of the Regensburg speech. However, Ratzinger’s lifelong dedication to dialogue with Judaism and his attitude of respect for and appreciation of Islam, consistent with the Second Vatican Council’s teaching, made it possible to overcome misunderstandings and difficulties.

By the end of his pontificate, Benedict XVI, had visited several synagogues (Cologne, Park Avenue in New York, and Rome) and several mosques (Blue Mosque in Istanbul, in Amman, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem), and there were regular encounters with other religious leaders too. We are so grateful to have a number of ecumenical and interfaith guests with us this evening; thank you again for your presence here.

Alongside this engagement was the manner in which Pope Benedict sought to reach out to people of good will. This reflects an important part of Catholic tradition which upholds the value of human reason, consistent with a vision of God who is Love, but at the same time Logos, the Word. The theologian and pope taught that on this basis, meeting points and common ground can be sought with all people, even if they do not have faith. He insisted on the theme of searching for truth with the full force of our human reason, and for this he repeatedly spoke against relativism and its ‘dictatorship’ in the present time.

Faith and reason

At Westminster Hall during his great visit to the UK in 2010, when he won over so many through his gentle, courteous and prayerful presence, Pope Benedict insisted that religious faith should not be excluded from the public space and relegated to the private sphere. Its contribution to ethics and pluralism is not to be seen as the cause of difficulties, but as a necessary part of building a free and democratic society. Faith is not so much a problem to be solved as a gift to be shared.

The idea of an ‘open’ or ‘enlarged’ reason, capable of research because it is called to know and love the truth, was a constant feature of Benedict XVI’s thought and speeches. This exercise of reason does not allow itself to be enclosed within the limits imposed by a purely empirical vision of the sciences or by an exclusively mathematical language. It is capable of broader reflection on the human person, on philosophy and morality, on the meaning of life and death, on transcendence and finally on God. Reflections which every human being searches and struggles with.  In exercising reason in this way, the human person is not closed in on themselves, running the risk of only seeing and responding to what is functional.

‘Closed’ reason he would say, “resembles windowless concrete buildings, in which we give ourselves the climate and light by ourselves.”[iii] Eventually, the human will be suffocated. The relationship with nature will be guided by the power dynamics of technology alone, and this will become destructive.

Carrying St David’s message

In contrast to this world view, Pope Benedict looked graciously and lovingly on all created by God. He invited us all to turn our gaze to Christ as he did so poignantly when he addressed Welsh Catholics on the occasion of the 2010 visit where he reminded us of St David’s dying words, “Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things.” “Gwnewch y pethau bychain.” He went on to say, “It is the little things that reveal our love for the one who loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19) and that bind people into a community of faith, love and service. May Saint David’s message, in all its simplicity and richness, continue to resound in Wales today, drawing the hearts of its people to renewed love for Christ and his Church.”

In this context, I want to thank you, First Minster, and the other civic guests who are present, for all you do for the common good of our society, in seeking to build a humane, equitable, and just, civil society.

Now we hope and pray that Pope Benedict, has reached the other world. Like those first shepherds, we pray he is rejoicing in the heavenly vision of angels as he gazes on Jesus in the company of the Blessed Mother and St Joseph, his patron. We pray that he is rejoicing with a joy that no one can take from him. We entrust his soul to the goodness of his Lord and ours.

In this hour we wish to pray also for the Holy Father, Pope Francis. May the Lord accompany him and give him strength and health. And let us pray that the Lord enlighten each of us, give us the faith that builds the world, the faith that makes us find the path of life, of true light and happiness.

+ Mark O’Toole
Archbishop of Cardiff
Bishop of Menevia

[i] Ratzinger, J. Introduction to Christianity (1968) p46.

[ii] Benedict XVI Final Conversations ed by P. Seewald, 2016.

[iii] Benedict XVI Address to German Parliament, 22 Sept 2011.


Pictured in the photo, from left to right, are:

Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds, High Sheriff of South Glamorgan
Karsan Vaghani, representative from the Hindu Council of Wales
Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales
Archbishop Mark O’Toole, Archbishop of Cardiff, Bishop of Menevia
Morfudd Meredith, Lord Lieutenant of South Glamorgan
Representatives from the Hindu Council of Wales