Benedict XVI’s sermon in Westminster Cathedral

Westminster CathedralFirst, I am so very happy for Catholics in England who had the privilege of being addressed with this sermon.

The Holy Father’s sermon for Mass at Westminster Cathedral.

Let’s read the sermon closely with emphases and comments.

The setting is a Mass of the Precious Blood in a Cathedral dedicated to the Precious Blood.   The sermon depends on the motif that Christ is the High priest and that therefore the Church is also the High Priest, which suffers and offers suffering.

Dear friends in Christ,

I greet all of you with the joy in the Lord and I thank you for your warm reception. I am grateful to Archbishop Nichols for his words of welcome on your behalf. Truly, in this meeting of the Successor of Peter and the faithful of Britain, “heart speaks unto heart” as we rejoice in the love of Christ and in our common profession of the Catholic faith which comes to us from the Apostles. I am especially happy that our meeting takes place in this Cathedral dedicated to the Most Precious Blood, which is the sign of God’s redemptive mercy poured out upon the world through the passion, death and resurrection of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. In a particular way I greet the Archbishop of Canterbury, who honours us by his presence. [A gracious gesture.]

The visitor to this Cathedral cannot fail to be struck by the great crucifix dominating the nave, which portrays Christ’s body, crushed by suffering, overwhelmed by sorrow, the innocent victim whose death has reconciled us with the Father and given us a share in the very life of God. The Lord’s outstretched arms seem to embrace this entire church, lifting up to the Father all the ranks of the faithful who gather around the altar of the Eucharistic sacrifice and share in its fruits. The crucified Lord stands above and before us as the source of our life and salvation, “the high priest of the good things to come”, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls him in today’s first reading (Heb 9:11).

It is in the shadow, so to speak, of this striking image, that I would like to consider the word of God which has been proclaimed in our midst and reflect on the mystery of the Precious Blood. For that mystery leads us to see the unity between Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the Eucharistic sacrifice which he has given to his Church, and his eternal priesthood, whereby, seated at the right hand of the Father, he makes unceasing intercession for us, the members of his mystical body.

Let us begin with the sacrifice of the Cross. The outpouring of Christ’s blood is the source of the Church’s life. St John, as we know, sees in the water and blood which flowed from our Lord’s body the wellspring of that divine life to the Hebrews draws out, we might say, the liturgical implications of this mystery. Jesus, by his suffering and death, his self-oblation in the eternal Spirit, has become our high priest and “the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb 9:15). These words echo our Lord’s own words at the Last Supper, when he instituted the Eucharist as the sacrament of his body, given up for us, and his blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant shed for the forgiveness of sins (cf Mk 14:24; Mt 26:28; Lk 22:20).

Faithful to Christ’s command to “do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19), the Church in every time and place celebrates the Eucharist until the Lord returns in glory, rejoicing in his sacramental presence and drawing upon the power of his saving sacrifice for the redemption of the world.

The reality of the Eucharistic sacrifice has always been at the heart of Catholic faith; called into question in the 16th century, [indeed] it was solemnly reaffirmed at the Council of Trent against the backdrop of our justification in Christ. Here in England, as we know, there were many who staunchly defended the Mass, often at great cost, [martyrdom] giving rise to that devotion to the Most Holy Eucharist which has been the hallmark of Catholicism in these lands.  [In the Cathedral there is, for example, the body of St. Robert Southwell, hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn correction… St. John Southworth.]

The Eucharistic sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ embraces in turn the mystery of our Lord’s continuing passion in the members of his Mystical Body, [This is an important image/motif for what follows.] the Church in every age. Here the great crucifix which towers above us serves as a reminder that Christ, our eternal high priest, daily unites our own sacrifices, our own sufferings, our own needs, hopes and aspirations, to the infinite merits of his sacrifice. Through him, with him, and in him, we lift up our own bodies as a sacrifice holy and acceptable to God (cf Rom 12:1). In this sense we are caught up in his eternal oblation, completing, as St Paul says, in our flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church (cf Col 1:24). In the life of the Church, in her trials and tribulations, Christ continues, in the stark phrase of Pascal, to be in agony until the end of the world (Pensees, 553, ed. Brunschvicg).  [So… the Pope is driving at what we do with our suffering.]

[] We see this aspect of the mystery of Christ’s precious blood represented, most eloquently, by the martyrs of every age, who drank from the cup which Christ himself drank, and whose own blood, shed in union with his sacrifice, gives new life to the Church. It is also reflected in our brothers and sisters throughout the world who even now are suffering discrimination and persecution for their Christian faith. [This "Christian" must be intentional.  Other Christians suffer because they are Christians.  The Pope is widening the circle.] Yet it is also present, often hidden in the suffering of all those individual Christians who daily unite their sacrifices to those of the Lord for the sanctification of the Church and the redemption of the world. My thoughts go in a special way to all those who are spiritually united with this Eucharistic celebration, and in particular the sick, the elderly, the handicapped and those who suffer mentally and spiritually. [The whole Church.]

[From that springboard…] Here, too, I think of the immense suffering caused by the abuse of children, especially within the Church and by her ministers. Above all, I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes, along with my hope that the power of Christ’s grace, his sacrifice of reconciliation, will bring deep healing and peace to their lives. I also acknowledge with you the shame and humiliation which all of us have suffered because of these sins; [I + You = We.] and I invite you to offer it to the Lord with trust that this chastisement will contribute to the healing of victims, [Suffering is propitiatory and healing.] the purification of the Church and the renewal of her age-old commitment to the education and care of young people. I express my gratitude for the efforts being made to address this problem responsibly, and I ask all of you to show your concern for the victims and solidarity with your priests. [He is saying this to lay people and to bishops, who are present.  The Pope asks for solidarity with priests.  The Pope reminded everyone that they are a priestly people who are enabled and charged to unite their sufferings with those of the Lord.  We share in the priesthood of Christ by sharing in their sufferings.  The abuse of children is one of the way in which we are all suffering now.  When one of us suffers, we all suffer.  People can suggest that Popes and bishops and superiors should have done more.  We don’t deny that.  But this is the sin of the whole Church.  We can’t make this an us v. them issue.  We are all in this together.  We all share in the sin of a member.  There are corporate consequences to personal sin.  This is a reason why in confession we must be reconciled to the whole Church.  The news media will say "POPE FEELS SHAME!".  What Benedict is saying is "WE FEEL SHAME".  Yes, of course HE feels it and HE personally expresses sorrow.  But in a second move, he widens the circle and points to the corporate dimension of the responsibility and the solution: suffering and healing.]

Westminster CathedralDear friends, let us return to the contemplation of the great crucifix which rises above us. [This from a Pope who wants ad orientem worship and, in lieu of that, the Crucifix front and center on the altar.  The Cross is central to his reflection on mystery.] Our Lord’s hands, extended on the Cross, also invite us to contemplate our participation in his eternal priesthood and thus our responsibility, as members of his body, to bring the reconciling power of his sacrifice to the world in which we live. [Sin is a corporate reality.  Responsibility is a corporate reality.] The Second Vatican Council spoke eloquently of the indispensable role of the laity in carrying forward the Church’s mission through their efforts to serve as a leaven of the Gospel in society and to work for the advancement of God’s kingdom in the world. [On many occasions the Pope has said that we must raise our voices in the public square.  We need a strong identity to persevere in doing that.  However, today he is adding another dimension.  As a priestly people we also suffer in the public square.  Bearing witness = martyrdom.] The Council’s appeal to the lay faithful to take up their baptismal sharing in Christ’s mission echoed the insights and teachings of John Henry Newman. May the profound ideas of this great Englishman continue to inspire all Christ’s followers in this land to conform their ever thought, word and action to Christ, and to work strenuously to defend those unchanging moral truths which, taken up, illuminated and confirmed by the Gospel, stand at the foundation of a truly humane, just and free society.

How much contemporary society needs this witness! [Martyrdom.] How much we need, in the Church and in society, witnesses of the beauty of holiness, witnesses of the splendour of truth, witnesses of the joy and freedom born of a living relationship with Christ! One of the greatest challenges facing us today is how to speak convincingly of the wisdom and liberating power of God’s word to a world which all too often sees the Gospel as a constriction of human freedom, instead of the truth which liberates our minds and enlightens our efforts to live wisely and well, both as individuals and as members of society. [In his "inauguration" sermon in 2005 he said: "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."]

[The Holy Father now speaks to reinvigorate the Catholic identity of the flock in England.] Let us pray, then, that the Catholics of this land will become ever more conscious of their dignity as a priestly people, called to consecrate the world to God through lives of faith and holiness. And may this increase of apostolic zeal be accompanied by an outpouring of prayer for vocations to the ordained priesthood. [He has been speaking about how all the people are a priestly people.  Now he underscores the priesthood of the ordained.] For the more the lay apostolate grows, the more urgently the need for priests is felt; [Lay apostolates are not, in themselves, enough.  They must have the support of the indispensable ordained priesthood.] and [More about our identity…] the more the laity’s own sense of vocation is deepened, the more what is proper to the priest stands out. [The roles must not be confused.  They are different and complimentary.] May many young men in this land find the strength to answer the Master’s call to the ministerial priesthood, devoting their lives, their energy and their talents to God, thus building up his people in unity and fidelity to the Gospel, especially through the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice.  [It is refreshing to read such clear words about vocations to the priesthood, without priesthood being blended in to generic "vocation".]

Dear friends, in this Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood, I invite you once more to look to Christ, [Crucified, bleeding] who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection (cf Heb 12:2). I ask you to unite yourselves ever more fully to the Lord, sharing in his sacrifice on the Cross and offering him that “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1) which embraces every aspect of our lives and finds expression in our efforts to contribute to the coming of his Kingdom. I pray that, in doing so, you may join the ranks of faithful believers throughout the long Christian history of this land in building a society truly worthy of man, worthy of your nation’s highest traditions. [The last line again brings together Benedict’s message of how Catholics must have a strong identity in order to contribute to society.]


Powerful and clear.

This will bear reading and rereading.

I note that the press is getting something wrong about this.  For example, the BBC wrote: "Pope Benedict XVI has expressed his "deep sorrow" for the "unspeakable crimes" of child abuse within the Catholic Church."   Yes, he did, but not in the way that the BBC leads.

John Allen, alas still writing for the National Catholic Reporter, pointed to how Pope Benedict is in a "box" concerning clerical sexual abuse of childen.  Benedict has to talk about it, but when he does critics say it isn’t enough or it isn’t right.  Allen adds that the Pope has to find something new to say: "Either he must figure out something new to say, or he has to supplement his words with actions – some new policy, some new spiritual initiative, or some new gesture of accountability, which would lend his words new significance."  The way I heard this sermon, the Pope has in fact something new to say.  But he is speaking as a Pope, not as a politician.  If people expect him to speak as if he were an American politicians dealing with a political crisis, they will merge into the crowd of those who are never to be satisfied no matter what is done.  I agree to an extent that something more than words is required.  Perhaps the Holy Father’s sermon might give a theological underpinning to an initiative by individual bishops to prostrate themselves on the street before their cathedral doors once a month, before leading their people into the church for a penance service.  Enough?  I don’t know.  But it is a start along the lines the Pope indicated today.  But we have to consider who the audiences are.  Who’s in really in the box?  Benedict XVI with his listeners or John Allen with his readers?

In a first move Benedict spoke very properly and necessarily of his own sorrow.  In a second move, he blends in the "we".  This is not just Benedict‘s issue.  If belongs to everyone. This surely goes beyond formal membership in the Catholic Church as well.

This Pope always speaks both ad intra (to Catholics) and ad extra (to the larger world).   He is working to revitalize our Catholic identity.  If we don’t know who we are, we cannot contribute to the social discussion and cannot make a difference.  Why should anyone listen to us if we are uncertain about who we are?  Perhaps this is one reason why secular humanist contempt for the Church has grown in England in the last few decades into something that it wasn’t before.  I don’t know.

But the Holy Father today blended into his already strong tonic a bitter-sweet tincture of suffering.  To be Catholic means not only being clear about our teachings, or practicing our devotions, and being able to give reasons for the faith that is in us.  Being Catholic disciples of the Lord means involvement in suffering, our own and that of others. 

If we are members of Christ the High Priest, we are also members of Christ the Victim for Sin.

Bearing witness to our Lord in the public square (in the family home, in the workplace, in the isolation of privacy) means also involvement in the Cross of the Lord, in the Precious Blood of the Lord shed to heal and give final meaning to the mysterium iniquitatis.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Jim of Bowie says:

    Thank you Father
    Because of his accent and style of delivery, I find it diffucult to grasp the meaning of his homilies when I hear them or hear them read by an interpreter. But, they are so much more meaningful when I read them, especially with your analysis. I would like you to reflect more on why, on this particular trip, he has referred to himself so many times as the Successor of Peter. I have not heard him to this so much in the past.

  2. Desertfalcon says:

    I would suggest, Jim, that the Holy Father is making the point in doing so that only through the throne of Peter is the unity of the Body of Christ on earth to be found.

    Wonderful homily. Wonderful image of the intention of suffering. And as usual, the NC Reporter gets it wrong.

  3. Desertfalcon: To be fair, John Allen wrote about one aspect, while I focused on another. I think Pope Benedict did say something new, has been saying something new. But consider the NCR’s audience. Will they really be interested?

  4. teomatteo says:

    I have watched almost the enitre papal visit so far and i’d like to give a very ..well simple(ton) observation. During both masses the Holy Father lead the people in reciting the confiteor. This I find so moving and important. (probably because our priest NEVER has us recite it- OF). I cannot help but slow down and really think about what we are praying for especially in light of what the Holy father said re the shame and sinfulness of the abuse. Your point Father about how we ALL share in the sin is so important… given that we also ALL share in the grace when someone very Holy is raised up (i.e. C. Newman) Again, thanks for the commentary.

  5. TonyLayne says:

    I think the Pope is emphasizing his succession to Peter because, foundationally, the CofE began with the assertion that English bishops were as much apostolic successors as the Bishops of Rome. I can’t speak with any expertise on the Anglican communion. But the impression I get is that it’s fracturing because, in part, its episcopate has lost sight and sense of what it means to succeed the apostles (I’m setting aside here, causa argumenti, our Catholic insistence that they lost the succession). As someone pointed out on another topic, Abp. Williams speaks very well and very persuasively, but not with any apparent conviction of authority. Every time B16 says “Successor of Peter”, he reminds them—and us—that Christ’s true Church isn’t just apostolic in metaphor but in history, lineage and living reality.

    Moreover, he reminds them that Peter was the Rock on which the Lord would build his Church (Mt 16:18); there is no workable, permanent substitute for the Petrine succession. HIs visit, and celebration of the Eucharist in Westminster Abbey, wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic or historically crucial if he came in the guise of “just another bishop”. B16 knows this, and is taking full advantage of this fact to energize the faithful and challenge the Anglican establishment. The way he slides it into his homilies and speeches, he makes it a simple, indisputable and undisputed fact … much better for dissonance production than a shrill demand for identity.

  6. becket1 says:

    A very beautiful Mass!. The choir was grand and the Latin enhanced it. And a very heart felt homily. I hope and pray that Pope Benedict XVI’s words really sink in. So far everything has gone well in Britain.

  7. kradcliffe says:

    That was the most beautiful Mass I’ve ever seen. I’ve never heard such beautiful music. The Mass in Glasgow was great, but today’s was literally heavenly.

  8. kradcliffe says:

    These are two comments I’ve heard by people I know:

    My FIL went with us to the Mass in Glasgow and told me “I fell for him, today. I wasn’t really sure about him, but now I see that he’s a really good man, so humble and you can see he’s very shy and nice.”

    And, a Church of Scotland friend of mine said this afternoon:

    “I was narked by this visit initially, given what it has done to the traffic flow in central Scotland and the amount it has cost in police time, but what little reportage I have paid attention to suggests that Benedict XVI is a statesman and a highly intelligent man, and may be doing some good here.”

  9. irishgirl says:

    I missed the Mass at Westminster Cathedral-I was having trouble with EWTN’s video feed at the book store I was plugged into-I would have loved to have heard and seen everything that went on there!

    I hope that EWTN gets a DVD together of the whole trip and has it available at a future date.

    But the pictures you have here, Father Z, are glorious!

    I’ve been in Westminster Cathedral myself on my visits to the UK, and I loved the place!

  10. teaguytom says:

    This mass was truly gorgeous. The Latin, vestments, sanctuary setup and music were faithful to the Holy Fathers wishes.

    irishgirl, New Liturgical movement has a few video clips of the major parts of the mass on their site.

  11. Supertradmum says:

    The Westminster staff is extememly professional, as is the choir. Everything was done with good taste and fairly good precision. Of course, the choir, one of the best in Europe for the past 20 years, was phenomenal, making the Byrd Mass for Five Voices seem easy.

    The fact that Adoration of the Eucharist was held in Hyde Park was astonishing. I do not think Americans understand how amazing all these public gatherings of Catholics and the Papal Visit are making history.

    I heartily recommend the BBC for coverage of the events and Masses, as the commentary has been restrained, correct, and reverent.

    Viva La Papa!

  12. Geremia says:

    The Novus Ordo doesn’t prescribe that the priest keep his thumb and index fingertips together during the time preceding and following the consecration?

  13. Ioannes Andreades says:

    Has been a while since I heard a homily in which the Council of Trent was mentioned.

    I presume that the votive mass was selected because of the cathedral’s dedication. Was a happy coincidence that a mass that addresses the attonement for sin also fell on Yom Kippur.

  14. pelerin says:

    Thank you Fr Z for your coverage of the Papal visit. I would like to point out though that the Saint who now lies in Westminster Cathedral is St John Southworth and not St Robert Southwell. Both these Saints were martyred at Tyburn.

  15. Thanks for that correction! My memory was faulty. I obviously need another visit to London so that I can be reeducated.

  16. Fra Anthony says:

    Has anyone noticed the “traditional” way the Holy Father incensed the oblata at the Offeratory? (see min. 7:24-8:20

    Has he imported a “tridentinism” into the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite (as some literalist intepreters of the Notitiae directive might argue)? Or is this an example of the hermeneutic of “mutual enrichment”?

    Viva el Papa!

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