In the quiet of St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg on New Year’s Eve, Deacon David Hall and his wife Libby knelt in the dimly-lit sanctuary and bowed to pray for the repose of the soul of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who died earlier that day at the age of 95.
The couple, from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Mechanicsburg, said they “just couldn’t miss the Mass” for their beloved former pontiff, whose portrait was placed near the pulpit and draped in black bunting for the liturgy.
“He was incredible – a scholar with an ability to make truth understandable and practical. He was on a different level,” Deacon Hall said. “We just had to be here this evening to pray for him.”
As the world awoke to the news on December 31 that Pope Benedict had died at 9:34 Rome time, the Diocese of Harrisburg announced the celebration of Mass by Bishop Ronald Gainer at the Cathedral that evening to remember and pray for the man who served as Vicar of Christ from 2005 until his resignation in February of 2013.
“We gather this evening to celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God as we prepare to ring in a new year. We also gather with the news of the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In this Mass this evening, we pray that God will be merciful in judging him and that he will surely receive the reward for being such a faithful servant of the Church,” Bishop Gainer said.
The Mass was streamed live on the Diocese’s YouTube channel and had been viewed by nearly 700 people by New Year’s Day.
The bishop, in his homily, quoted from Pope Benedict, allowing the former pontiff’s words to speak poignantly to the congregation gathered to remember and pray for him.
The first was a quote from his farewell address on February 28, 2013, just hours before his papacy ended and he boarded a helicopter from the Vatican to Castel Gandolfo:
“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth. But I will still with my heart, with my love, with my prayers, with my reflections and with all my inner strength, work for the common good and the good of the Church and of humanity.”
“In this Mass tonight, we thank our good God,” Bishop Gainer said, “for the blessings that Father Ratzinger, as a theology professor and a peritus at the Second Vatican Council; that Archbishop Ratzinger, as the shepherd of his flock in Munich and Freising; that Cardinal Ratzinger, as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and that Pope Benedict XVI gave and…the blessings that we received as part of the Body of Christ through our supreme teacher, shepherd and sanctifier.”
“Tonight, we commend and will continue to commend his good soul to the mercy of God, in gratitude for his great service to the Church and to the world, and seeking God’s mercy in His judgment,” the bishop said.
Bishop Gainer also drew upon a quote Pope Benedict gave on the same Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God in 2006: “The fundamental truth about Jesus as a divine person who fully assumed our human nature is condensed in the phrase, ‘In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman.’ He is the Son of God. He is generated by God and, at the same time, He is the son of a woman, Mary. He comes from her. He is of God and of Mary. For this reason, one can and one must call the mother of Jesus the mother of God, Theotokos, the God-bearer.”
“With his usual clarity and succinctness, Pope Benedict summarizes the mystery that gathers us this evening, and every year on the first day of the new calendar year,” Bishop Gainer reflected. “As we celebrate this dogma of our faith…it should be something that is personal to each of us, because Mary is our mother.”
“Let us ask the intercession of our Blessed Mother to grant us that grace, that this coming year will be a time when we imitate her more closely and ponder what we have heard in the Word of God and the teachings of our Church; ponder the experiences of God’s grace that we have day in and day out,” the bishop said. “Let us ask that the gaze of love from our Blessed Mother that fell first on her infant son will always be upon us.”
At the conclusion of the Mass, Deacon Hall, formerly an evangelical pastor, told The Catholic Witness that Pope Benedict’s writings and teachings were instrumental in his joining the Catholic Church in 2007, and in his discernment to eventually become an ordained deacon in the Church in 2012.
“Theologically, he was such a bridge for me coming from my evangelical background into the Church,” said Deacon Hall, who said he owns most of the books that Pope Benedict has written.
“I am so thankful he was my pope when I entered the Church and when I was ordained,” Deacon Hall said. “What a glorious legacy he leaves us, and think how powerful his prayers will be for us in heaven.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness