Given the unprecedented nature of Thursday’s funeral for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis’ role, and especially the homily that he would deliver for his predecessor and co-pope, was highly anticipated.
Would he give Benedict the simple send-off he had requested, while managing not to offend the church’s conservative wing, which wanted much more for their departed standard-bearer? Benedict had been much more conservative than Francis and there had long been whispers of Benedict as a “shadow pope” who had undermined numerous of Francis’ liberal initiatives. Indeed, whispers of friction between them as Benedict’s decision to take the title of Emeritus at the time of his resignation, and then to continue to wear the papal white robes, was surprising and disconcerting.
Francis opted for a homily that reflected his own vision of the Catholic Church, but not everyone was satisfied with his approach. Michael Hesemann, a biographer and friend of Benedict, called it “a little bit standard,” and a theologian and writer in Pennsylvania described it as “a kind of slap.”
To some American Catholics, the homily’s brevity and impersonality were seen as a snub from a pope who has moved to undo many of Benedict’s signature priorities. Benedict was a guiding star for conservative Catholics in the United States, who viewed him as a leading figure for a kind of doctrinal adherence and consistency they saw lacking in the church under the more liberal pope.
Francis paid respects to Benedict’s having lived the gospel “for his entire life” by repeatedly citing his predecessor’s words. Francis reflected the theologian’s core belief of putting Jesus at the center of life by meditating on how Jesus put himself in God’s hands.
Above all, those close to Francis said, the homily centered on a bishop, and pope’s, core role as a pastor. “God’s faithful people, gathered here, now accompanies and entrusts to him the life of the one who was their pastor,” Francis said of Benedict’s final passage.
“The Holy Father gave a beautiful homily reflecting on the mission of a pastor, in closest imitation of Christ” said Cardinal Michael Czerny of Canada, a close adviser to Francis. He added that the pope concluded “this most beautiful spiritual portrait” of a devoted pastor by applying it “wholeheartedly to his predecessor.”
But Heseman did not concur with such a generous view: “You could have given the same homily for anybody, any cardinal, any bishop or even the butcher next door”.
“I thought this was a kind of slap at Benedict,” said Larry Chapp, a theologian and writer who has a small farm in Pennsylvania, describes himself as a “relatively conservative Catholic” and runs in a circle where Benedict is revered as a great hero of the faith.
Mr. Chapp, who arrived in Rome on Monday, viewed the funeral with the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, which he described as quiet and somber. As he reflected, he softened his view, noting that Francis is not known as a “thunderous orator” in any context.
“I’ve heard better funeral homilies in parishes for regular people,” he said. “To my mind, it was almost as if Pope Francis had gone to his files and looked under the file ‘funeral homily.’”
Others were harsher. In a blog post for The American Conservative, the Eastern Orthodox and former Catholic writer Rod Dreher called the homily “an act of disrespect explicable only as an exercise of banked contempt.”
“He could have delivered this homily for his butler,” Mr. Dreher wrote.
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