Pope Francis’ Usual Style for Homilies Mostly Held True for Benedict XVI

COMMENTARY: The homily for the pope emeritus was inadequate for the occasion, but measured by the Holy Father’s own standards, it was actually something special.

Pope Francis presides over the funeral Mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI Jan. 5 in St. Peter's Square.
Pope Francis presides over the funeral Mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI Jan. 5 in St. Peter's Square. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

What is to be said about the homily of Pope Francis at the funeral Mass of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI?

Quite a bit, apparently. Secular outlets found it “touching,” in the headline of one American network. The ecclesial reaction was mixed. 

Pope Francis only mentioned the name of Benedict XVI once, in the final paragraph. He made no specific mention of the late pope’s life, thought or ministry. That neglect was offensive to many — “unconscionable,” “graceless” and “appalling” were characterizations I heard directly from bishops who were present. The masterful and moving homily that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger himself had offered at the 2005 funeral of St. John Paul II made the contrast more painful to many.

The negative assessment of the Holy Father’s homily was not universal among admirers of Benedict. The “thoroughly biblical and Christocentric” homily was considered “quite appropriate for the funeral Mass of the Christ-centered Benedict XVI,” wrote George Weigel.

Nevertheless, the scant mention of Benedict at his own funeral prompted widespread discussion, with even the Jesuit-run America magazine asking whether “Pope Francis was wrong to only mention Benedict XVI once.”


Great Occasions — Ordinary Expectations

I sounded a warning for readers beforehand, writing before the funeral about the “rhetorical reserve” of the Holy Father’s homiletics. Many of his homilies on great occasions fall flat because he only mentions the occasion in passing. That he would mention Benedict at all was not to be assumed, as Pope Francis has preached at canonizations without mentioning the new saint. 

Thus there are objective grounds to take umbrage, in that it was clearly inadequate to the occasion. But it was not a subjective slight to Benedict; Pope Francis gives the same treatment to everyone. Those who don’t follow the Holy Father’s preaching regularly may not have realized that he has long had an extremely rare preaching style. Most parish priests would give a parish custodian greater prominence in a funeral homily than Pope Francis gives to a saint he has just canonized.


The Unsentimental Pope

The largest audience Pope Francis had before the funeral of Benedict XVI was the joint canonization of two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II in 2014. That was the first wide introduction to the new papal style; Pope Francis spoke in general terms about both popes in a brief homily in which he mentioned them in relation to his own synod on the family. Moreover, the canonization took place on the 75th birthday of John Paul’s longtime secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who was sitting just yards away from Pope Francis. He made no mention of him.

The grumbling then was significant, some assuming that Pope Francis had some latent hostility to John XXIII or John Paul II. Not the case. The Holy Father has given the same treatment to those close to his heart.

Soon after his election in 2013, Pope Francis accelerated the cause of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyr of San Salvador. When his canonization was drawing close, the bishops of El Salvador asked Pope Francis to do the canonization in San Salvador after he visited Panama in January 2019 for World Youth Day. After all, St. John Paul II had dragged himself to Mexico and Guatemala in his wheelchair after WYD 2002 in Toronto to canonize Juan Diego and Brother Pedro of St. Joseph de Betancur. It would have been a much easier trip for Pope Francis, but he turned the Salvadoran bishops down, seemingly unmoved by their argument that the poor would be unable to travel to Rome. 

And when he did canonize St. Oscar in Rome, the sum total of what he said about Romero was simply this: “It is wonderful that together with [Pope Paul VI] and the other new saints today, there is Archbishop Romero, who left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the Gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters.” Pope Francis then added that “we could say the same” about the others canonized. 

That was more than another famous Latin American saint got the following year. Sister Dulce Lopes Pontes, the “Mother Teresa of Brazil,” was so well loved that John Paul personally visited her in the hospital when in Brazil in 1990. When canonizing her in 2019, Pope Francis did not even pronounce her name, only noting that she was one of three “religious women” canonized that day. The thousands of Brazilian pilgrims who came to Rome did not even hear her name. 


One Template for All

Pope Francis has a preferred template for homilies. He chooses three themes from the biblical readings and builds his homilies around them. Usually the first has to do with some kind of calling out or questioning, the second with movement, and the third with an encounter with God. 

For example, at the 2018 canonizations, the three themes were asking Jesus about life, leaving things behind to move forward, and finding joy.

In 2019, the three things were to cry out, to walk and to give thanks. 

Just the day after Benedict’s funeral, at the Epiphany, Pope Francis brought out the same template: “restless questioning,” the “risk of journeying” and the “wonder of worship.”

The reality is that, measured by the Holy Father’s own standards, the funeral homily for Benedict XVI was something special. It was not the usual template. He quoted Benedict’s inaugural homily as pope — “Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer” — presenting Benedict as a shepherd who gave “the sheep the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence.”

Pope Francis clearly disappointed those who had high expectations for a panegyric worthy of Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger had provided one worthy of John Paul II. After 10 years though, there never should have been such expectations.