Benedict XVI’s Three Funerals and the Gifts of His Papacy

Benedict XVI’s Three Funerals and the Gifts of His Papacy

“Today we bury his remains in the earth as a seed of immortality – our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude.”

Cardinal Ratzinger opened his homily for the funeral of John Paul II with these words.  We can apply them equally today to Benedict XVI.

Like the loss of any good father of a family, the funeral of a pope prompts an opportunity to give thanks, and the chance to review the gifts of his legacy.  Unique among modern popes, Benedict XVI has given us not one but three funerals as moments for such reflection. 

The first funeral was the one he presided over on 8 April 2005, at the death of John Paul II.  At that funeral he offered to the Church and the world the gift of an invitation to conversion.  This gift was expressed through many words and gestures; they also touched the life of my own family personally.

In April of that year my wife and I found ourselves on a private pilgrimage in Rome, by accident – or better, by providence – at the same time as a sea of several million other Catholics washed over the city.  Nearly all of them were under 30.  We were not Catholic at the time.  But we were in our 20s.  And we were seekers.  We had both grown up as ecumenically-minded Mennonites.  We were living in the United Kingdom while I completed a doctorate on St. Augustine.  At that time in our lives I could count on my hands the number of ‘good’ Catholics we had known. 

Ryan Topping 2048x1365Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping is vice-President and director of the Benedict XVI Institute at Newman Theological College

To us, and to some of our friends, Catholicism appeared both alluring and repulsive.  The Church attracted because we knew something of its intellectual and cultural beauty; it repulsed because it was foreign, and frankly, because it compared in several respects unfavourably to the life we knew within our own evangelical circles.  For one thing, Catholics (generally) can’t sing!  For another, could we raise children to be faithful Christians in the Catholic Church?  Obviously, such skepticism speaks more to the limits of our own experience at the time; but it was what we honestly knew.

Could we raise a Catholic family? At that point in time I believe that was our main emotional objection to joining the Church.  I suppose invincible ignorance sometimes calls forth invincible demonstrations….at least God seemed to offer one for us.  Over that week in Rome the so-named John Paul II generation arrived wrapped in all the flags of the world: the Lord provided us with an answer.  Ratzinger’s words that week also put out an invitation. 

The polish pope’s call to ‘put out into the deep’ was echoed by the Cardinal’s homily in Rome at the funeral Mass with the recurring words “Follow me!” Here was a man of the highest intelligence who had found the simplicity of faith at the far side of complexity.   Here was goodness and learning and an invitation that was hard to resist.   And though we would only immerse ourselves in his thought later, we did follow him.  That Spring, when back home, at Oxford, we also entered into full communion with the Church, at the University’s unassuming Newman Centre Chaplaincy.  

Eight years later Benedict XVI presided over a second funeral of sorts.  On 10 February 2013 Benedict XVI announced that he would step down in his active role as Supreme Pontiff.  What could this mean for the Church? What sort of gift might this death contain?

Since 1981 Cardinal Ratzinger had served John Paul II as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Although the pontificate of Benedict XVI would contain its own surprises, its own successes, and a few failures, his presiding at John Paul II’s funeral had symbolically prefigured the essential continuity between these two papacies. 

The John Paul II-Benedict XVI papacies accomplished many things: they toppled –with the aid of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan – Soviet Communism; repaired Jewish-Catholic relations; advanced a new Theology of the Body; launched World Youth Days; energized a young generation of clergy; defended the unity of faith and reason; and much more.  But undoubtedly, the monumental task that had been entrusted to them both was the proper implementation of the Second Vatican Council. 

The results were mixed.  Even without George Weigel’s biography Witness to Hope at the elbow, one need only dip into JPII’s own 14 Encyclicals to get a sense of his abiding pastoral desire: to preserve the fullness of doctrine while at the same time making it more understandable to modern people. 

At the opening of the Vatican II in 1962 John XXIII had named the goal of the gathering in these terms: “that the sacred heritage of Christian truth be safeguarded and expounded with greater efficacy” – timeless truth made timely.  

Of course not everything unfolded as expected.  The Council has born good fruit, but mixed with this has been dissention. Implementation has been uneven.  Confusion at the level of doctrine and practice has been excessive.  As Benedict XVI himself would hint at the time of his election, the Church of the third millennium risked splitting. 

The second gift of Benedict’s papacy I believe is the gift of unity.  At the risk of oversimplifying, let me attempt a simplification to express why I think this is so. 

Since Vatican II, most ecclesial debates have been fought over the right emphasis of two concepts: ‘resourcement’ and ‘aggiornamento.’ To the one side, there is resourcement.  This term signifies the Council’s desire to return again, and more earnestly, to the sources of her tradition, especially in its Biblical and Patristic roots.  This is a conservative principle that runs through much of the Council documents and some post-conciliar thought.  The young Ratzinger was a beneficiary of this early 20th century trend in the Church – a trend led by friends of the French theologian Henri de Lubac.  To the other side, there is aggiornamento.  The idea here is that, as an urgent pastoral and missionary strategy, the Church is called to “update” her teachings. 


This is no principle of novelty.  Rather, in the mid-20th century, and in the aftermath of the rise and fall of totalitarian states, “updating” the Church’s pastoral approach aimed to make Christian life appealing again to godless peoples.  This is a progressive, or better, a dynamic principle that seeks to remove any barrier that would stand in the way of an encounter with the risen Christ.  The young Ratzinger was also a beneficiary of this 20th century trend – championed by the likes of Romano Guardini.   

At its best, both of concepts should find a home in the Church.  Both impulses were intelligently expressed by St. John Henry Newman in the 19th century, and both found expression in the work of Benedict XVI. 

Even when people don’t speak in these terms, the concepts mark two poles of insight in Catholic thought.  Each has regularly been appealed to over the past 60 years.  Divisions have arisen in the theatres of theology and parish life when, unfortunately, one or other or those concepts have been appealed to, without the support of the other. As with all other things Catholic, the unity of truth is more like a symphony than like a trumpet.  All the little truths of faith, like all the individual instruments of an orchestra, find their true home only when played within the grand score that is the unity of the faith.

Is adaptation and growth in the Church possible? Yes. Is fidelity and orthodoxy necessary? Of course.  Benedict XVI’s answer to the Gordian knot that has bound the Post-conciliar Church was to appeal not to a specific argument, but to a cultural disposition, or to what Newman elsewhere called a certain “habit of mind”.  This habit of mind Benedict XVI rephrased as “the hermeneutic of continuity”. 

All the areas that Benedict’s papacy touched – ecumenism, politics, dogmatics, hagiography, liturgy – can be fruitfully approached from the point of view of this master lens.  His 2005 Christmas homily before the Roman curia on this theme might be seen as prelude announcing the program of his next eight years of office.  I quote only a selection:

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

The genius of Benedict XVI’s papacy, in its second gift, was to illustrate the unity of past and present, of tradition with innovation, of the certainty of faith with the ongoing search into the mysteries of God.

This 2013 ‘funeral’ marked the end of what we might call the era of “Post-Conciliar” debates.  Of course the Vatican Council is still with us.  The good fruit of its work remains.  But neither Pope Francis nor any other major theologian today was active at the Council of 1962-65.  For those under forty years of age the documents are mostly unknown.

Today we greet Benedict’s third and final funeral. What gifts will this moment impart?

This week the Church mourns a Supreme Shepherd who was also one of her most eminent theologians.  It is in his work as a theologian, no doubt, that the pope emeritus’ greatest influence is yet to be unearthed.  In addition to his three encyclicals and four exhortations, Benedict XVI left the Church and the world some 66 books and innumerable speeches.  It will take the Church three decades at least to mine the further gifts that his legacy will offer us.

Allow me to end on a personal note.  Here at Newman Theological College, in Edmonton, we host an institute named after our beloved pontiff: The Benedict XVI Institute for the New Evangelization. By my count we exist as one of only a handful of Institutes and Centres named after the Pope in the world, and the only one in Canada.

Later this year, we plan to re-launch our Institute, with new staff, new materials, and a renewed vision.  We also look forward to unpacking the rich legacy of this humble servant of the Lord.  We hope you will join us in this work. 

In the meantime, united to the prayers of the whole Church, we say with our beloved pastor: our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude.

Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping is Vice President and Director of the Benedict XVI Institute at Newman Theological College, Edmonton, Canada.  His forthcoming work is “Thinking as Though God Exists: Newman on Evangelizing the ‘Nones’” (Angelico Press, 2023). This article was originally published on the Archdiocese of Edmonton blog.

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