Most Reverend Philip Tartaglia,
Archbishop of Glasgow
Homily of the liturgical Feast of the Chair of St Peter the Apostle
1. Today is the Feast of the Chair of St Peter the Apostle, which celebrates the office of Peter, the first of the Twelve Apostles, who was designated by Jesus Christ to be the universal pastor of his entire Church. The office of Peter continues in the Church in St Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome, whom we call the Pope. This is the feast, then, also of the Holy Father’s authority and mission for the universal Church, as Successor of Peter.
2. And I wanted to celebrate this Mass of the Chair of St Peter the Apostle with you today especially because of the situation in which the See of Peter and the Catholic Church finds itself at this moment. For within a few short days, the Chair of Peter will be vacant, not because of the death of the Pope, but because the Pope has chosen voluntarily to lay down his office. This is an eventuality which is envisaged by Canon Law, but which is almost unprecedented, and which the Catholic imagination struggles to comprehend. The first surprise of Pope Benedict’s decision may have passed but we are left unsettled.
3. Of course, we accept that Pope Benedict’s decision was for the good of the Church. He is an elderly man. He senses that his physical and intellectual powers are diminishing to the point that he cannot exercise the Petrine ministry. This Pope is a man of great spiritual and intellectual stature. He is also fundamentally a gentle, reserved and humble man. This act of self-abasement for the good of the Church, which took us all so much by surprise, seems to me to emerge from these characteristics of his personality. We can understand it, but it still leaves us unsettled and a little anxious for the future.
4. Today’s feast should help to re-assure us. Jesus’ words, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church” remind us that the Petrine ministry comes from the will of Christ for his church. And we as Catholics can appreciate that without the Petrine ministry at the heart of the Church, the Church would have been blown about by every rogue idea and every wind of change, and would have more than likely suffered from crippling disunity. There have been more than enough challenges for the Church in recent decades and even to the present day, but without the Popes where would we have been, we might wonder?
5. In fact the experience of Popes in just my lifetime shows us that we have had Popes who were men both of great integrity and of huge stature: Pius XII, who held the Church together during and after the horrors of WWII and who subtly prepared the ground for Vatican II; the much-loved Blessed John XXIII who had the freedom of spirit to initiate Vatican II; Pope Paul VI who guided the Church though the Council and in the exciting but very difficult early post-conciliar years; the brief pontificate of John Paul I, Papa Luciani, whose 33 days showed us a man of endearing humanity; Blessed John Paul II, the great Pope from Poland, who for almost 30 years bestrode the Church and the world like a indefatiguable colossus, and who provoked the collapse of communism with his Christ-centred Christian humanism; and now Pope Benedict, the master teacher and catechist, who has analysed so well the discontents of contemporary liberal democracy, who has encouraged us to appreciate the beauty of the liturgy, and who has implanted deep within the consciousness of the Church the call for a new evangelisation. To these Popes, the Lord entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and they have not let the Church down. We must hope and pray that one such as they will be elected to sit upon the Chair of Peter.
6. Of course there is one indispensable quality the Pope must have. He must be able to answer the Lord’s question: “Who do you say I am?” in the same way as Peter who was able to declare: “You are the Christ the Son of the living God.” The next Pope, like Benedict, must be a committed disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ who can profess his faith before the world and invite the men and women of our age to put their faith and their trust in Jesus and to find in the Lord the response to the deepest longings of the human heart.
St Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow
22 February 2013