The following is a homily given by Fr. Matthew Phelan, O. de M. a Mercedarian Friars.It refers to the end of the Benedict XVI’s pontificate and the beginning of the conclave to elect a new Pope.
Today’s readings in the Ordinary Form of the Mass (Wednesday of the 2nd Week of Lent), as well as in the Extra-Ordinary Form (Feria Quarta infra Hebdomadam II in Quadragesima) are apropos as we enter the last hours of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.
In the first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah (18:8-20), we hear the classic human response to the difficult prophetic word that flows from God: “Come, let us contrive a plot against Jeremiah. It will not mean the loss of instruction from the priests, nor of counsel from the wise, nor of messages from the prophets. And so, let us destroy him by his own tongue; let us carefully note his every word” (NAB). They represent the words of the denial of truth and reality. “We’ll believe what we want to believe.” “Who are YOU to tell me what to do?”
The prayer of Jeremiah — “Heed me, O LORD, and listen to what my adversaries say. Must good be repaid with evil that they should dig a pit to take my life?” (NAB) — expresses a similar sentiment to that of Esther that we hear today in the Extraordinary Form: And now, O Lord, O king, O God of Abraham, have mercy on thy people, because our enemies resolve to destroy us, and extinguish thy inheritance (Douay-Rheims).
These words ring just as true for us today.
The role of the prophet is not to tell us what we want to hear—although that can legitimately happen when we are in a state of Grace and our wills are tuned to God’s will. Rather, the role of the prophet is to tell us what we need to hear. What happens then? There are those who do not like the message. (If we are honest, we must admit that we are among them at times.) Rather than changing their ways, those who do not like the message shoot the messenger. (Pardon the use of such an expression while so many are apoplectic about the mention of firearms—but it is the expression that fits.) People want a messenger that tells them that everything is fine and dandy—even if it is not. “It makes us FEEL better.” “It doesn’t hurt our FEELINGS.” “Don’t OFFEND me.” That’s why our nation (and Western Civilization) is in such trouble. People do not want to face truth—but they want to pretend everything is fine. So, we believe those who lie to us and make us feel good.
“The Titanic is filling with water!” But some say, “She is unsinkable!” I’ll believe them. “Um…. Excuse me…. The ship is listing.” But we say, “Impossible! Unthinkable. Unsinkable.” So, we refuse to take the women and children to the lifeboats, and order another drink from the bartender.
The spirit of the world—popular culture and the media—keeps asking the question: What do you want to see in the next pope? Our answer should be—WHO CARES WHAT WE WANT!!! The proper question is—WHAT DO WE NEED? Not, what do we FEEL we need, or THINK we need, but what DO we NEED. Of course, that is a question that only God can answer to the full. What we can say, by faith is this: “No matter what—if the Pope is to be a true prophet, he should be a man of humility and courage.”
There is the old saying—He who enters the conclave as POPE, leaves it as CARDINAL. The one who desires to be pope is like the sons of Zebedee in today’s gospel (in both forms of the Mass) Matthew 20:17-28. Whether he politics himself (as they do in Mark’s gospel) or get’s someone else to do his bidding (as James and John send their mother to do in Matthew’s gospel), he is more concerned about his own glorification than in Christ’s. We have had popes like that in history, but God is in charge. Therefore, we survive. Our hope, however, is not only to survive, but to flourish. Ultimately, this is not measured merely in numbers, but in the depth of our union with God and one another.
The cup that a pope must drink is to be the same cup of the prophets and the cup of Christ himself—the cup He passed to his disciples: the cup of subversion and rejection, the cup of envy and contempt. Hence, courage is needed for the pope to be a prophet that tells us what we need to hear.
Of the four popes in my lifetime, the only pope that was not hated by the world was John Paul I. He was only pope for 33 days—so he did not have time to upset people. He smiled. But, if people followed the life and his actions of John Paul I, and delved into the beauty and truth in his literary works when he was (Albino Luciani) Patriarch of Venice, they would eventually find reason to hate him, too.
One might say that John XXIII was loved by the world. However, in this writer’s opinion, people loved the “caricature” of him more than the prophet that he truly was. The images created by modernists and “uber-traditionalists” do not necessarily match the reality of the man.
We have only hours left in the pontificate of a truly humble and courageous prophet. We pray for Pope Benedict and pray that God sends us another successor to Peter who has the humility and courage to tell us all what we need to hear. We pray, also, that we will not punish the messenger.
Rev. Fr. Matthew H. Phelan, O. de M. Local Superior, Monastery of Our Lady of Mercy, Philadelphia, PA