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HOMILY OF Cardinal Angelo Sodano

Monday, 28 September 1998


1. Twenty years have passed since divine Providence decreed that within two short months the Supreme Pontiffs, Paul VI and John Paul I, should depart this world: the former, after a long Pon- tificate which marked a historic period in the Church; the latter, after a ministry as brief as it is dear to the memory of God’s People.

We find ourselves gathered round the altar to offer the divine Sacrifice for these two chosen souls. The Holy Father, who is spiritually present with us, has entrusted me with the task of presiding in his name at this celebration to which he is united in prayer.

The 20 years which have passed since the death of these two Popes invites us to reflect with a more acute awareness on what a great gift these Pontiffs were for the Church.

2. “Mihi vivere Christus est” (Phil 1: 21). In the lives of Giovanni Battista Montini and Albino Luciani the Holy Spirit was able easily to mould the image of Christ the Good Shepherd. The Church gives thanks to the Father first of all for their shining spiritual and pastoral example. The witness of deep love for God's People and dedication to the Gospel which distinguished them enabled our contemporaries to recognize the living image of Christ, made even more visible by the affability and sensitivity of heart with which they were richly endowed.

Despite the different lengths of their Pontificates, both were Popes of the Second Vatican Council, of a Church which felt seized by the Spirit for a renewed impulse of evangelization and dialogue with the contemporary world.

In considering the work they accomplished, one immediately recalls with admiration and gratitude the great Popes given by God to his Church in this century to provide that ministerium unitatis which, as Christ willed, is the principal task of Peter and his Successors. 

3. In this 20th century, God truly wanted to give proof of his Providence by entrusting the governance of his Church to a succession of extraordinary Pontiffs, outstanding for their personal holiness and marvellously suited to the needs of their times, not only at the ecclesial level, but also at that of universal human history.

After the long pontificate of Leo XIII, the century began with a sign of holiness: Pius X focused all his attention on instaurare omnia in Christo through a catechesis, liturgy and Eucharistic piety based firmly on life. Benedict XV stands out against the background of a tur- bulent time in history as a wise and far-sighted leader. In the period between the two world wars, Pius XI gave a great impetus to the missions, the lay apostolate, cultural institutions and, in international relations, to the system of concordats. Pius XII was the teacher who taught the truths of faith and morals to a world devastated by war and who laid the immediate doctrinal foundations of the Second Vatican Council which would be called by his Successor, John XXIII. Pope Roncalli, a Pastor loved by the Christian people and motivated by a genuine ecumenical spirit, mapped out the ways to peace for the whole world in his Encyclical Pacem in terris.

4. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18).

Built on the solid foundations of Peter’s faith, the Church has continued Christ’s mission down the centuries. “Sacramentum seu signum et instrumentum intimae cum Deo unionis totiusque generis humani unitatis”: so the Second Vatican Council describes her in the solemn introduction of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium (n. 1). And a little further on, this same conciliar document echoes St Cyprian’s immortal words: The Church is “de unitate Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti plebs adunata” (De Orat. Dom., 23: PL 4, 553; cf. Lumen gentium, n. 4).

This Church, gathered in unity and the sacrament of unity, is built on the rock of Peter. As His Holiness John Paul II writes in the Encyclical Ut unum sint: “Among all the Churches and Ec- clesial Communities, the Catholic Church is conscious that she has preserved the ministry of the Successor of the Apostle Peter, the Bishop of Rome, whom God established as her ‘perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity’ and whom the Spirit sustains in order that he may enable all the others to share in this essential good” (n. 88).

5. The Holy Spirit is the principal agent of this mystery of communion. He is like the Church’s soul: “Unifying her in communion and in the works of ministry, he bestows upon her varied hierarchic and charismatic gifts, and in this way directs her; and he adorns her with his fruits (cf. Eph 4:11-12; 1 Cor 12:4; Gal 5:22)” (Lumen gentium, n. 4). The Holy Spirit is at the origin of that unique charism which is the steadfast faith of Peter, a charism on which rests the Petrine ministry of shepherding the whole flock and strengthening it in the unity of faith (cf. Jn 21:15; Lk 22:32).

Through the Apostle Peter and his Successors, the Spirit ensures the unity of the People of God. During this year dedicated to the Holy Spirit, let us praise the Paraclete for the marvellous works he has done down the centuries in the Pontiffs who have succeeded one another in this Apostolic See founded on the blood of the martyrs.

When we say that the Creator Spirit guides history towards God’s kingdom, we know that this happens according to a mysterious plan which unfolds beginning with the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ. This plan, which transcends the historical dimension and, at the same time directs it by giving it its full meaning, manifests itself especially in the life and work of those whom the eternal Shepherd “made shepherds of the flock to share in the work of [his] Son” (Roman Missal, Preface of the Apostles I). In every age, especially in the more critical moments of history, the Popes have played a decisive role in summoning and guiding their flock to peace, to dialogue, to hope, to the great human values.

6. In the Church and for the Church the Petrine ministry is exercised as a service of truth and communion. Pope Paul VI said to those attending a General Audience: “When you, the faithful thirsting for Jesus Christ who founded his Church on Peter, meet the Pope, you think of the Church which is concentrated in him, and at this moment more than ever you feel in communion with all your brethren in the faith, with the whole universal community of believers, indeed, in a certain sense with all humanity. Yes, here is the centre, here is the heart, here is the unity of Catholicism” (Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, II [1964], 804).

This same awareness can be seen in the words that his Successor, Pope John Paul I, addressed to the College of Cardinals a few days after his election: “This unity transcends space, ignores racial difference and enriches us with the true values present in the diverse cultures. Though peoples differ in geographical location, in language and mentality, through this one communion, they become a single great family... It is for this unity that we know we have been established both as a sign and as an instrument... It is our goal to dedicate our total energy to the defence of this unity and indeed its increase” (L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 7 September 1978, p. 2).

Because he is the minister of unity, Peter’s Successor is the first servant of the ecumenical cause. But precisely for this reason, he cannot neglect the role in the Church assigned to him by Christ. “The problem of Christian unity”, Paul VI also said, “cannot be solved without that authority and that charism of unity which we hold to be Peter’s divine prerogative” (General Audience, 21 January 1970; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 29 January 1970, p. 1). As we offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice for the souls of Pope Montini and Pope Luciani, let us also entrust to their heavenly intercession the Church’s progress towards the fulfilment of her Lord’s prayer: “Ut omnes unum sint” (Jn 17:21).

7. During their earthly pilgrimage, the two Pontiffs we recall today were configured to Christ the Good Shepherd. Let us pray that he will welcome them into the heavenly pastures and bring them into the Father’s house, where they can eternally enjoy that happiness and grace of which the responsorial psalm spoke (cf. Ps 23 [22]:1-2, 6).

In the labours and suffering of human and ministerial life, they repeated with the Apostle Paul “mihi vivere Christus est et mori lucrum” (Phil 1:21). Now, beyond death, may their life be fully transformed into a hymn of praise to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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