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Thursday, 8 January 2004


Your Eminences and Concelebrants,
Ambassadors and distinguished Authorities,
Members of the late Mons. Michael's family and Irish friends,
Brothers and sisters in the Lord!

On 29 December last sad news arrived to upset the joyful spirit of the Christmas celebrations: a murderous hand had raised itself against the life of our dear and venerated Apostolic Nuncio in Burundi. Once again, Cain had pounced on Abel.

The loving care of those who tried to assist him in difficult circumstances was of no avail: seriously wounded, a short time later, in the loneliness of the hospital in Bujumbura, Archbishop Michael Aidan Courtney surrendered his noble soul to God.

1. A man of God

Shocked by the tragic event, the Catholic community in Burundi immediately gathered in prayer, to ask the Lord to grant the reward of the just to the man who had given an outstanding witness of apostolic commitment in his three years of service in the Nunciature there.

The funeral Mass which took place on Wednesday, 31 December, in Bujumbura Cathedral demonstrated the veneration in which the late Mons. Michael was held in that troubled Country.
We still read with emotion the message published by the seven Bishops of Burundi in those sorrowful circumstances:

"Day and night, without ceasing, Monsignor Michael Courtney helped the people of Burundi to re-establish understanding and harmony among themselves through dialogue.... He spared no effort to bring all Burundians together, excluding no one. In that way he wished to show that there is no way to save our Country except that of dialogue, consultation and the definitive rejection of murder and assassinations as a political means.... The Bishops hope that the heritage of this man of God will help all who are working together to implement the agreements reached... (cf. L'Osservatore Romano, 2-3 January 2004).

The Holy Father's mention of him on 1 January last here in St Peter's Basilica, during the celebration of the World Day of prayer for peace, was a moving one. His Holiness spoke of Mons. Courtney as a witness of the Gospel of Christ, the Gospel of peace.

Then, on Saturday, 3 January, the body of our dear brother Michael was buried in his beloved Irish homeland, in the green isle which he loved so much. There the aching melody of the liturgy of the dead echoed out: "In Paradisum deducant te Angeli, in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres", "May the Angels lead you into Paradise, may the martyrs receive you on your arrival".

Today, we believe him to be there, in the company of the Angels and the Martyrs, while on earth we mourn his loss.

2. The dawn of life

Brothers and sisters in the Lord, in this time of trial I would like to repeat Cardinal Arinze's words to the faithful who filled the Church in Nenagh in the Diocese of Killaloe (Ireland): "Our faith guides us, especially in painful moments such as this one" (cf. L'Osservatore Romano, 4 January 2004).
Yes, this faith is our faith in the Resurrection, it is faith in Divine Providence, it is faith in the eternal reward which awaits us in Paradise.

This is the message which St Paul gives us in the first reading: "Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord" (Rom 14: 8).

This is the Psalm which we have sung: "In you I hope, O Lord, God of the living! My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak" (cf. Ps 129: 5-6).

This is the faith that sheds light on our lives, transforming the twilight of our existence into the dawn of life. In that regard, I always think fondly of the expression of the great St Paulinus of Nola, who wrote in this way to parents who were grieving for the death of their son: "Love causes us to weep, but faith causes us to rejoice", "Flere iubet pietas, gaudere iubet fides" (Carmen XXXI, 10).

With this serenity of the saints, we remember today our departed brother. His death is but a bridge between two lives, the earthly one and the heavenly one; it is but a bridge between the two shores of human existence.

3. Into the Father's hands

Brothers and sisters, in this time of prayer, we cannot, however, forget that every Eucharistic celebration is also "in remissionem peccatorum", for the forgiveness of sins. We all need forgiveness. St John reminds us of this in his First Letter: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I Jn 1: 8-9).

This is what we wish to do in this Holy Mass, as we entrust our dear brother Michael to God's merciful love. This is our prayer, full of trust in Christ, the lamb of God who "takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1: 29).

4. Our sister death

At the same time, in this Eucharistic celebration we also wish to respond to the invitation issued to us in today's Gospel: "You also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Lk 12: 40).

This is a warning on which we too wish to reflect today as we gather in prayer, remembering the earthly life of our venerated brother Michael.

It is a warning to regard life as a mission to be accomplished, a journey to be undertaken on the path traced out for us by Providence, with our belts fastened around our waist and lamps lit in our hands. This is the Christian understanding of life, which sees "our sister death", to use St Francis' expression, as the inescapable path to eternal life.

The non-believer removes the idea of death from his daily life. The Christian, however, prepares himself serenely for his meeting with the Lord, and together with the saints he says: "So great is the good that awaits me that every suffering is a delight".

When I was a seminarian, we were advised to meditate on St Alphonsus Liguori's book Preparation for Death. This was a work in the line of many other writings used in the past to teach the ars moriendi, the art of dying. Before it, a similar book, St Robert Bellarmine's De Arte Bene Moriendi ("The Art of Dying Well"), enjoyed much success. Perhaps today such books surprise us, but they teach us nothing other than the art of living well in order to die well. In this way, the ars moriendi becomes the ars vivendi, the art of living in the light of the Gospel of Christ.

5. A precious witness

Our dear Apostolic Nuncio taught us this art of Christian living. A son of the noble Land of Ireland, he bore witness to his solid faith on the pathways of the world. In the footsteps of Christ, the Good Shepherd, he sacrificed himself for the people of Burundi, where the Pope had sent him as an Apostle of peace. In all parts of that afflicted Country, Mons. Michael repeated what the Pope had forcefully stressed during his historic Visit to Burundi in September 1990: "Peace, peace! Forgiveness and love!" The Apostolic Nuncio always gave the example of love to that beloved people.

St John of the Cross tells us that "at the end of life, we will be judged on love". Precisely for this reason, Monsignor Michael Courtney, who loved the African people so much, will have been able to hear the consoling words of Jesus: "What you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.... Come, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord" (cf. Mt 25: 21, 23, 40).

And now at the end of this homily, I would like to greet in a particular way the members of the family of the late Apostolic Nuncio.

I greet the members of the Courtney family present at today's Mass. On behalf of the Holy Father and the entire Roman Curia, I wish to express our deepest sympathy and I assure you that we are close to you in this time of suffering and tragic loss.

Archbishop Michael deeply loved his native Ireland. There he received the gift of faith which enabled him to give such inspiring witness wherever he served. May his memory and his example be a source of comfort and strength to all of you.


*L'Osservatore Romano. Weekly Edition in English n2 p.3.