Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 80th birthday April 16 in some usual — but also some unusual — ways.

First, he thanked God for all his goodness, by presiding over a solemn celebration with some 70 cardinals, bishops, heads of the Roman Curia and priests from Rome. Nearly 50,000 people attended the Mass at St. Peter’s Square on the eve of the Pope’s birthday.

From the center of the square, on a radiant, sunny day, I saw a beaming Holy Father.

He was visibly happy. And he told us why.

“One’s own life,” he said in his homily, “can serve to announce the mercy of God. ‘Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me,’ a psalm says (66:16).”

God’s Gifts

Benedict centered the memories of his life on God’s mercy. April 15 was Divine Mercy Sunday — a happy coincidence that linked Benedict’s pontificate to that of his predecessor.

“The Holy Father John Paul II wanted this Sunday to be celebrated as the Feast of the Divine Mercy,” the Pope said. “In the word ‘mercy,’ he found summarized and newly interpreted for our time the mystery of Redemption.”

Benedict noted the providential connection between this theme and John Paul’s departure and message: “Two years ago, after the first vespers of this feast, John Paul II ended his earthly life. By dying, he entered into the light of the Divine Mercy about which he now talks to us beyond death and rooted in God. ‘Have confidence in Divine Mercy!’ he says to us. Become men and women of the mercy of God day after day!”

A huge Divine Mercy image between two columns was visible to all of us from the back of the square. The picture, blessed by John Paul on the day he canonized Sister Faustina Kowalska and established Divine Mercy Sunday, came from the nearby Church of the Holy Spirit.

Benedict thanked God especially for the gift of his earthly and supernatural life. He was born and baptized on the same day, April 16, 1927. It was a Holy Saturday.

“I have always considered a great gift of the Divine Mercy,” he said, “that my birth and rebirth were given to me on the same day, at the beginning of Easter. In this way, on the same day, I was born as a member of my own family and of the big family of God.”

The Pope said that from his parents he learned the deep meaning of fatherhood and motherhood.

The Holy Father also thanked God for his brother and sister, for the many companions he met throughout the years, for his advisers and friends, and, in a special way, for the community of believers:

“Birth and rebirth, earthly family and the big family of God — this is the great gift of the multiple mercies of God, the foundation upon which we stand.”

He expressed his gratitude to God for another demanding gift — that of his priestly call.

Benedict, finally, thanked all of us.

“From the depths of my heart,” he said after the Mass, “I renew my most sincere thanks that I extend to the whole Church, which, like a true family, especially in these days, surrounds me with its affection.”

Gifts to Benedict

At the Mass, Benedict used for the first time a new processional cross, made in the gold workshop of the millenary Benedictine Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, in Burgos, Spain. He also used a new embellished book of the Gospels donated by the faithful of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising he had shepherded as an archbishop.

In previous days, thousands of people had sent the Pope their good wishes via mail and e-mail, including Alexei II, the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and of All Russia.

On April 16, the Holy Father was greeted by Edmund Stoiber, the minister-president of Bavaria, and also by Peter Harry Carstensen, the minister-president of Schleswig-Holstein. Benedict also welcomed Cardinal Friedrich Wetter of Munich and Freising and a 50-member delegation.

The day took on an ecumenical tone when the Pope received in audience Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas of Pergamum, who delivered a letter from Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

Surprisingly, he who was being celebrated became a giver of gifts.

Gifts From Benedict

The Holy Father presented 500 euros (about $680) to each of the 2,000 Vatican employees. He invited all the cardinals present in Rome to join him for lunch in the Ducal Hall of the Apostolic Palace.

His greatest gift on his birthday was the publication of his long-awaited book Jesus of Nazareth.

By publishing Jesus of Nazareth on such a meaningful date, the Holy Father, I think, wanted to make a point. Benedict’s life has always been marked by his personal encounter with the Son of God.

“The friendship of Jesus Christ,” he said in his homily, “is the friendship of him who makes of us people who forgive, of him who also forgives us, who continuously lifts us up from our weakness and thus educates us, who infuses into us the awareness of the interior duty of love, the duty to respond to his trust with our fidelity.”

The Pope’s book is the result of a long, personal search for the face of Christ. Shouldn’t we celebrate the gift of our lives in the same way? Shouldn’t we also say from the bottom of our hearts, “Your face, Lord, do I seek” (Psalm 27:8)?

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar

teaches philosophy at Rome’s

Regina Apostolorum University.