by Father John P. Cush
Several Brooklyn priests studying and working in Rome had the opportunity to assist at the Holy Father’s last public Mass as pontiff. Originally, as is the custom, the Ash Wednesday Mass is at Santa Sabina and is usually a much smaller event. Dominicans and Benedictines would generally assist the Holy Father on this day, as the Ash Wednesday procession usually begins at San Anselmo, staffed by Benedictine monks, and makes its way for Mass at Santa Sabina, served by Dominican Friars.
Due to the historical news of the day, the place of the Mass was moved to St. Peter’s Basilica and several hundred priests were needed for Holy Communion and distribution of ashes for the large crowds. Fathers Peter Purpura, Cuong Pham, Joseph Zwosta and I were all able to distribute Holy Communion at this Mass, and Deacon Jun Hee Lee was chosen to distribute blessed ashes.
For me, standing about 10-feet away from the Holy Father at the altar as he consecrated the Body and Blood of the Lord, three things moved me:
First, I believe I witnessed the fulfillment of the Scriptural passage from John 21:13 – “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” When the Holy Father, who was dressed in a violet cope for the procession, arrived at the altar, gently and lovingly, Msgr. Marini, the papal master of ceremonies, assisted by another priest, removed the pope’s cope, miter, pallium and zucchetto. They dressed Pope Benedict, who looked very tired, in his violet dalmatic and chasuble and then put his papal insignia back on him, again like a son or grandson would do for a father or grandfather that just gently needed a hand.
The humility of Benedict, allowing others to dress him and to lead him to the altar, assisting him up the stairs is an image I will never forget. Benedict embodied the older St. Peter, being led off to fulfill his sacrifice on his own cross.
Second, I believe I witnessed a pastor saying goodbye to his parishioners. We sometimes forget that the pope is the Bishop of Rome. The fact that the language of the Mass was primarily in Italian, not in the usual Latin, meant a great deal. This Mass was for his people in the particular diocese whom he shepherds. As he began his homily, he specifically thanked the good people of the Diocese of Rome, just as a pastor would thank his parishioners.
Third, at the end of the Mass, Pope Benedict was thanked for his years of service as a priest, bishop and for his almost eight years as Supreme Pontiff. The applause was deafening in the basilica, and I would guess it went on a good three minutes. As Benedict XVI stood there, gently smiling, when the applause died down, the first words out of his mouth were “Let Us Pray,” reminding me that all of the applause, all of the adulation, all of the pomp and glory is not about any particular person – it’s all about Jesus. This is, in my opinion, one of the great legacies of this pope – reminding us that he is not the star, he is not the center of attention – to God alone be the glory.
Whether it be in placing the crucifix in the center of the altar to remind himself and us that the liturgy is never about the celebrant or the congregation – it is about worshipping the Lord – or his gentle, humble, personal way, the theme I see of this pontificate is humility before the awesome vocation with which God has blessed him.
I am grateful that I am a student in this Holy City to witness these historical days but, most especially, to have been in the presence of this pope of humility.Father John P. Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a doctoral student in dogmatic theology at the Angelicum in Rome, Italy.