This morning we celebrate the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, a Church which adorns herself with the modest title of being “Mother and first of all the Churches in Rome and of the world.” But it is not so much that title we celebrate, nor even the basilica itself as much as it is the unity and universality that they represent.
Long before the popes began to preside over the assembly at St. Peter’s Basilica they made St. John Lateran their residence. For centuries that was the center for the visible source of our unity; today what we truly celebrate is the affection we have for the Vicar of Christ on earth, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. And we have much to celebrate, much to be thankful for.
For decades as a theologian and subsequently as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he provided clear and engaging teachings, in articles, books and statements, on Christ and the Church. As our Holy Father he has continued to teach, govern and sanctify the Church through his writing and example. But one aspect of the pontificate of Benedict XVI that I would like to emphasize this morning is his consistent witness—in city after city, country after country, time and again—in the face of what has often revealed itself as bitterness towards the Catholic Church and the Catholic message.
To be sure, that bitterness has come at times as a result of the sins and even scandal caused by members of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI has addressed this himself many times. Yet there is also a bitterness that has come as a result of the world that we live in, a world that is growing increasingly more secular, increasingly more closed-off from the things of God. There is a sense of bitterness, then, that can result from the Catholic message itself which our Holy Father represents; a message that emphasizes the need for conversion and forgiveness, an acknowledgement above all of the merits of Jesus Christ for us, not an emphasis on our own merits and accomplishments, however grand and distinguished they may be.
Yet in the face of such bitterness, our Holy Father has consistently borne witness to Jesus Christ and the message of the Gospel, in humility and charity, immersed in the power and joy of the Holy Spirit.
The impact of this witness has been tremendous. In city after city, country after country, from Washington, D.C. and New York, to France, Great Britain and recently in Spain, time and again that witness has affected the lives of thousands of people. Many, perhaps not most but certainly many, of those who were bitter about their experience of the Church or bitter with regard to the circumstances of their lives, have been touched by the life and ministry of Pope Benedict XVI. His reception in places across the globe has been positive and powerful for the Church and the world we live in.
I would suggest this morning that this witness offered by our Holy Father is not one exclusive to him as the Vicar of Christ. It is a witness that is universal in scope, one which we are all called to embrace. We are all called, as members of the Body of Christ, to bear witness to Jesus Christ and His Gospel, with humility and charity, immersed in the power and joy of the Holy Spirit. The Prophet Ezekiel, in our first reading this morning, shows us a vision of what that witness of the Church can look like. In his vision, which prefigures the Church, Ezekiel sees a temple and describes how there is water flowing from the sanctuary of that temple. It flows out well beyond the confines of that place of worship and reaches all the way to the sea (see Ezekiel 47:1-12).
Now usually when a river flows into the sea those waters, laden with salt and brine, will flow back into the river and turn its fresh water brackish. Not so with this river, describes Ezekiel. Instead, he says, the water flowing from the temple and into the sea changes the sea itself! That great body of water, bitter to the taste and expansive in size, is changed and transformed by the river flowing into it. In fact, Ezekiel relates how even the trees which line the banks of that great river are vitalized and they bear fresh fruit each month; their leaves are useful as medicine for healing.
It is a beautiful and vibrant picture of the mission of the Church and of the witness we are called to bear. We are called, at this Eucharist and in this sanctuary, to be immersed in the Body and Blood of Christ, so that we can go out into the world and bear witness to our Lord in all we say and do. Where will the rivers and tributaries flowing from our temple spread out to this day? How might God be able to bring healing and wholeness to those who have perhaps grown bitter in their experience of life? May we, like Pope Benedict XVI, bear witness to Jesus Christ and His Gospel, in charity and humility, fully immersed in the power and joy of the Holy Spirit.