His Holiness recounted something that happened during his ordination to the priesthood, sixty years ago today as I write. The Pope wrote:
We were more than forty candidates, who, at the solemn call on that radiant summer day, which I remember as the high point of my life, responded “Adsum”, Here I am. We should not be superstitious; but, at that moment when the elderly archbishop laid his hands on me, a little bird—perhaps a lark—flew up from the high altar in the cathedral and trilled a little joyful song. And I could not but see in this a reassurance from on high, as if I heard the words “This is good, you are on the right way.”
Now for a personal anecdote of my own.
In April 2005 for Pope Benedict’s first big Mass in St. Peter’s Square to inaugurate his pontificate, and when people were still buzzing a bit about why he chose the name “Benedict”, another interesting bird event occurred.
For that Mass I happily had a break from work for Fox News (I was on a lot as a contributor and doing “color commentary” in those days). For the Mass I was in the press section on top of one of the big “arms” which stretch out from the Basilica, rather close to the Basilica itself in the straight part before the arm curves.
I believe it was just after the sermon of the Mass, in a silent aftermath … no choir singing, no organ playing, no one talking… a raven flew out from behind the Basilica, on our arm’s side, swooped in a couple circles over where the altar was positions, cawing loudly, and then disappeared whence it came.
Benedict chose the name “Benedict” in part because of the pivotal figure of St. Benedict of Nursia, whose monastic tradition played such an important role in the developed of liturgical worship and in the preservation of Western civilization.
St. Benedict is very often depicted with a raven in artistic representations.
“But Father! But Father!”, some of you are surely saying. “A raven? Isn’t that a bad bird? Isn’t a raven is sign of something … ummm…. bad?”
Yes, the raven has developed some bad P.R. over the centuries. But the raven also has its good press.
Consider, for example, the Bible. Elijah was fed by ravens in the wilderness.
St. Gregory the Great (+603) wrote of the life of St. Benedict. Gregory in his Dialogues tells how in the wilderness Benedict fed a raven with some of his meager bread. Later, when a wicked priest tried to kill Benedict with poisoned bread, Benedict asked the raven to take the deadly morsel away and put it where it couldn’t harm anyone.
Then the raven, opening its beak wide and spreading its wings, began to run around the bread, cawing, as if to indicate that it wanted to obey but was unable to carry out the order. Again and again the man of God told him to do it, saying, ‘Pick it up, pick it up. Do not be afraid. Just drop it where it cannot be found.’ After hesitating a long time, the raven took the bread in its beak, picked it up and flew away. Three hours later it came back, after having thrown the bread away, and received its usual ration from the hands of the man of God.
Toward the end of the sermon at that inaugural Mass, Pope Benedict – newly and reluctantly elected – said:
At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society. The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.
In another connection, it was at that inaugural Mass that Pope Benedict received his pallium as Bishop of Rome, just as today, on his 60th Jubilee and the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, he conferred the pallium on others.
Do say prayers for the Holy Father, asking God to give him the graces he needs not to be afraid in his role as Vicar of Christ.