The Transfiguration
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

An unpublished homily by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger days after the death of Paul VI

Four days after Paul VI's death, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, celebrated Mass in his Bavarian Cathedral on 10 August 1978 for the late Pope. His homily was printed in the archdiocesan bulletin, 'Ordinariats-Korrespondenz'. For the 50th anniversary of Pope Montini's election (21 June 1963), 'L'Osservatore Romano' translated and published the text in n.141 of the Daily and a synthesis was published in the English weekly edition, n. 26. The following, however, is an unabridged translation.

In the Eucharistic Prayer in Holy Mass for 15 years we have said the words, "we celebrate in communion with your servant our Pope Paul". As of 7 August this sentence no longer applies. The unity of the Church for the moment has no name; his name is now in the memory of those who have come before us in the sign of faith and who are resting in peace. Pope Paul was called to the Father's house on the evening of the Feast of the Lord's Transfiguration shortly after hearing holy Mass and receiving the sacraments. "It is well that we are here", Peter had said to Jesus on the mountain of the Transfiguration. He wanted to stay there. What was then denied him was, on the contrary, granted to Paul VI on this Feast of the Transfiguration in 1978: he no longer needed to descend into the daily routine of history. He could stay there, where the Lord is seated at table for eternity with Moses, Elijah and all those who arrive from East, West, North and South. His earthly pilgrimage had ended. In the Eastern Church which Paul VI so deeply loved the Feast of the Transfiguration has a very special place. It is not regarded merely as one event among many, one dogma among others, but rather as the recapitulation of all things: in it are brought together the Cross and the Resurrection, the present and the future of creation. The Feast of the Transfiguration is our guarantee that the Lord does not abandon creation; that the body is not discarded as though it were an article of clothing, that it does not exit history as though it were a theatrical role. In the shadow of the Cross we know that creation moves toward transfiguration in this very way.

What we designate as "transfiguration" is called "metamorphosis" ("transformation") in New Testament Greek and this emphasizes an important aspect: transfiguration is not something remote that can happen in perspective. In the transfigured Christ faith is far more clearly revealed for what it is: transformation, which in human beings takes place throughout their life. From the biological viewpoint life is a metamorphosis, a never-ending transformation that concludes with death. Living means dying, it means metamorphosis toward death. The narrative of the Lord's Transfiguration adds something new: dying means being restored to life. Faith is a metamorphosis in which man definitively matures and becomes mature in order to be definitive. For this reason John the Evangelist, fusing transfiguration and cross, describes the Cross as glorification. In the final liberation from oneself the metamorphosis of life reaches its goal.

The transfiguration promised by faith as a metamorphosis of man is primarily a journey of purification, of suffering. Paul VI increasingly accepted his papal service as a metamorphosis of faith into suffering. The last words the Risen Lord spoke to Peter after making him the shepherd of his flock were: "when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go" (Jn 21:18). It was a hint of the crucifixion that lay in store for Peter at the end of his journey. It was, in general, a hint of the nature of this service. Paul VI, increasingly, let himself be taken where, humanly, by himself, he did not wish to go. For him his pontificate meant more and more allowing another to clothe him and allowing himself to be nailed to the cross. We know that before his 75th birthday — and also before his 80th — he fought strenuously against the idea of retiring. Moreover, we can imagine how heavy the thought must be of no longer belonging to ourselves; of no longer having a single private moment; of being enchained to the very last, with our body giving up and with a task that day after day demands the total, vigorous use of a man's energy.. "None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord" (Rom 14:7-8). These words of today's Reading word for word defined Paul VI's life. By bearing it as a suffering he gave new meaning to authority as service. He took no pleasure in power, in position, in having had a successful career; and precisely because he bore authority as a responsibility "another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go" — his authority became great and credible.

Paul VI carried out his service for the faith. This gave rise to both his firmness and his willingness to compromise. He was obliged to accept criticism for both, and some comments after his death have not devoid of bad taste. Today, however, to the eyes of our time, a Pope who does not stand up to criticism will fail in his task. Paul VI resisted telecracy and demoscopia, the two dictatorial powers of the present time. He was able to do so because he did not adopt success and approval as the parameter, but rather his conscience, which is measured by truth and by faith. This explains why on many occasions he sought compromise: faith leaves much open, it offers a broad spectrum of decisions; the parameter is love felt as a duty to all things, thus, imposing deep respect. For this reason he was able to be inflexible and decisive when the essential Tradition of the Church was at stake. This firmness within him did not stem from the insensitivity of one whose path is dictated by the pleasure of power and contempt for people, but from the depth of his faith which enabled him to stand up to opposition.

In his inmost depths Paul VI was a spiritual pope, a man of faith. A newspaper that described him as a diplomat who had left diplomacy behind him did not err. In the course of his career in the Curia, he learned to dominate the instruments of diplomacy virtuously, but they faded ever further into the background in the metamorphosis of faith to which he had subjected himself. Deep in his heart he was finding his way, with ever greater certainty, simply in the call of faith, in prayer, in the encounter with Jesus Christ. In this way he became increasingly a man who was profoundly good, pure and mature. Those who met him in his last years could directly experience the extraordinary metamorphosis of faith and its transfiguring power. It was possible to see how this man, an intellectual by nature, was giving himself to Christ, day after day, how he was letting himself be changed, transformed and purified by him, and how this made him ever freer, ever more profound, ever kinder, more perceptive and simple.

Faith is a death, but it is also a metamorphosis in order to enter authentic life on the way to transfiguration. One could note all of this in Pope Paul. Faith had given him courage. Faith had given him goodness. And in him it was also clear that convinced faith does not close but opens. In the end, we cherish in our memories the image of a man with outstretched hands. He was the first pope to have gone to all the continents thus establishing an itinerary of the Spirit which began in Jerusalem, the fulcrum of the encounter and separation of the world's three great monotheistic religions. Then came his journeys to the United Nations and to Geneva, his meeting with humanity's greatest non-monotheistic religious culture, India, and his pilgrimages to the suffering peoples of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Faith stretches out its hands. Its symbol is not a fist but an open hand.

In his Letter to the Romans St Ignatius of Antioch wrote the marvellous sentence: "It is good to set from the world unto God, that I may rise again to him" (II). The Bishop-Martyr wrote this as he journeyed from the East to the land where the sun sets, the West. There, in the sunset of martyrdom, he hoped to receive the dawn of eternity. Year after year, Paul VI's journey became a journey in ever greater awareness of witness borne, a journey into the sunset of death which summoned him on the day of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Let us confidently place his soul in the hands of God's eternal mercy. Let us allow his example to be an appeal to us and to bear fruit in our soul. And let us pray that the Lord send us another pope who once again fulfils the first mandate which the Lord gave Peter: "Strengthen your brethren" (Lk 22:32).


L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7-14 August 2013, page 3

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