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Cardinal Gregory Praises Mary, Pope Benedict XVI for Helping People See Face of God

Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory, pictured at a Sept. 12, 2021, Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, says Mary and retired Pope Benedict XVI, who died Dec. 31, 2022, helped people to seek and see the face of God. The cardinal remembered the late pope at a Dec. 31 Vigil Mass for the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God at the basilica. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

By Mark Zimmerman

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — By their lives, Mary and the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI helped people to seek and to see the face of God, Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory said Dec. 31.

His comments came during his homily at a Vigil Mass for the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, where prayers were offered for the repose of the soul of the retired pontiff who died earlier that day at age 95.

Cardinal Gregory was the main celebrant at the Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the concelebrants included Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio to the United States, and Msgr. Walter Rossi, the basilica’s rector.

During his April 2008 pastoral visit to Washington, Pope Benedict XVI joined the nation’s Catholic bishops at an evening prayer service in the basilica’s Crypt Church. At the Dec. 31 Mass, a portrait of the late pontiff was displayed in the sanctuary near the ambo, along with a Papal Rose hand-crafted by artists that the pope gave the basilica as a gift during his visit there.

At the beginning of the Mass, Washington’s archbishop noted, “On this last day of 2022 in anticipation of the beginning of the new year, we gather to honor the Mother of God as we celebrate the solemnity of her motherhood, and in the midst of our prayer, we ask the Father to receive his servant Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who actually visited this very shrine and prayed here, and so it is very fitting we pray for him here.”

In his homily, Cardinal Gregory noted that Catholics and people of faith around the world that day were sorrowful, but also remembering with gratitude “Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who fell asleep in Christ earlier this day.”

The cardinal called the late pontiff a “man of extraordinary faith and humble demeanor (who) was a gifted servant of Christ’s church.”

Pope Benedict, a noted theologian, scholar and author who served as a priest, archbishop, cardinal and a pope, had deep trust in God’s providence in those many roles of service to the church, Cardinal Gregory said.

“Benedict XVI with an erudite yet humble mind invited all believers to seek the face of God — a fitting heritage today as we honor Mary whose generosity in responding to God’s plan gave God himself a human face,” the cardinal said.

Cardinal Gregory then offered a prayer of blessing for Pope Benedict, whom he called “God’s faithful servant,” and encouraged people to pray “with one heart today” for the late pontiff.

Using the words of the Aaronic blessing from the Old Testament Book of Numbers, words that God told Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to use in blessing the Israelites, Cardinal Gregory in his prayer for Pope Benedict said: “The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!”

In his homily, Cardinal Gregory pointed out how in the Book of Exodus, “so powerful and overwhelming was God’s holiness that it would blind anyone who dared to gaze upon that face. … Simply to view the face of God was itself a death sentence. Then God chose to change that by taking upon himself the image of a baby — not just any baby, but one born into poverty.

“In this Child, we can all look upon God’s face, and rather than to die, we only enrich our very lives.”

Later, the cardinal concluded his homily by saying the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God “stands as the living reminder of God’s new identity as the Infant who draws all people to himself. In the same way as newborns everywhere, people want to glimpse at this baby, but in looking at the Child, we see not simply a happy smiling and charming little one, we see the very face of God who through the Incarnation has drawn close to us and who invites us to enter into a friendship with Divinity itself.

“Thank you, Mary, for allowing God to fashion a face from your flesh and making it possible for all of us now to gaze upon the infinitely holy one with joy rather than flee from the face of God in fear.”

Hundreds of people representing a variety of backgrounds and ages attended the Mass, including families with young children.

In welcoming people to the Mass, the basilica’s rector Msgr. Rossi said they had come to honor Mary, the Mother of God, and also to pray for Pope Benedict, and “thank God for the gift of this faithful shepherd of the church.”

The intercessions at the Dec. 31 Mass included a prayer “for the church throughout the world, that the example and witness of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will continue to inspire God’s people to their love for the Gospel and their service to others.”

Before the Mass, Msgr. Rossi told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, what it was like when Pope Benedict XVI visited the basilica in 2008. A display in the lower level of the National Shrine includes the papal chair that Pope Benedict used during his evening prayer service with the U.S. bishops in the Crypt Church.

Cheering crowds outside the basilica had greeted the pontiff as he arrived in the popemobile.

“We walked through the Upper Church, he blessed everyone gathered there,” said Msgr. Rossi, noting that Pope Benedict then prayed at the basilica’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel and its Oratory to Our Lady of Altötting, which includes a replica of a statue of Mary from a famous shrine in Germany’s Bavarian region near where the pope was born.

Then during his visit to the basilica, Pope Benedict went to the sacristy and vested for the prayer service with the nation’s bishops.

Msgr. Rossi said that in addition to hosting Pope Benedict at the basilica in 2008, he was fortunate to have met with the pontiff on several occasions in Rome over the years.

“Pope Benedict was personable, humble and gentle. When he spoke to you, he held both of your hands in his and looked you directly in the eye. When you spoke to him at that moment, you were the only person who mattered,” he said, praising the late pope as a scholar, theologian and author.

The basilica’s rector said it was a privilege “to celebrate a Mass in honor of a great man, a great priest and bishop, and one who truly was a part of Mary’s Shrine, because he was here. Like every family member who dies, we pray for our beloved dead.”

After the Dec. 31 Mass, some people like Michele Tennery walked to the front of the basilica and took photos of the portrait of Pope Benedict and the Papal Rose with their cellphones.

Tennery, who noted that she was a volunteer for Pope Benedict’s Mass at Nationals Park and his visit to the White House when the pontiff came to Washington in 2008, was wearing her small volunteer’s pin with the “Christ Our Hope” theme and logo from that papal visit. “(Pope Benedict’s visit to Washington) seems like yesterday,” she said.

In addition to admiring Pope Benedict’s “keen intellect” and how he rooted the faith in Catholic theology, Tennery said she liked how that pontiff during his visit spoke out about the importance of families and of the dignity of life from conception to natural death.

“Plus, our family heritage is Bavarian,” she said, smiling.

Also attending the Mass was Peggy Liuzzo and her husband,Tom, who are members of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Woodbridge, Virginia. She noted that they attended Pope Benedict’s Mass at Nationals Park and still have a commemorative coffee mug from that papal visit.

Oveka Obroh also walked up near the papal portrait after the Mass, and said she admired Pope Benedict’s “very humble and simple manner,” and how he had the humility to resign from the papacy in 2013

As people left the basilica, Annie Kozuch from the Los Angeles area knelt to pray near the pope’s portrait. When she stood up to leave, she said Pope Benedict “will be missed. … He led the church in the direction it needed to go when we had him.”