I pulled myself out of bed at three o’clock in the morning on Jan. 5 in order to catch a glimpse of the live coverage of the funeral Mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. It was hard to say if it was far too late at night or far too early in the morning. Either way, I haven’t seen that hour in a long time.
There are some moments you don’t want to miss, even if it’s going to disrupt your circadian rhythm for the rest of the week. This was one such instance. I know that much of the Catholic world — and perhaps many of you — watched with me.
I recall a similar feeling during Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27, 2020. Amid an exceptional Holy Week when most Catholic parishes were closed, a monstrance gracing an empty, rainy St. Peter’s Square offered hope. Here was an extraordinary moment of prayer, drawing the gaze of Catholics everywhere.
Papal elections and funerals also fall into this category of unmissable events. In all likelihood, we won’t see many of these in our lives, so they are worth witnessing in real-time, as they become part of the collective memory of a generation of Catholics.
Such iconic moments also remind us that we are a universal Church — unified in our beliefs, rituals and leadership. This we pray nearly every week in the Creed: “I believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.”
The attention last week on one historic liturgy — the pope’s funeral — inspires a clearer understanding of our shared faith. Our rituals are always universal, and this sense of unity as Catholics must be ever-present in our celebrations, especially the Mass. The structure of the Mass and the texts of the Roman Rite are the same everywhere, albeit in different languages. We are united by the same liturgical calendar and lectionary readings from Scripture throughout the year.
These may seem like small things, but anyone who has attended Mass far from home or in an unfamiliar language knows the comfort of the universal Church. While you may not understand every single word, you know exactly what is happening and why it is happening, and so you can unite yourself in heart and mind to the liturgical action. Every Mass is an act of solidarity with other Catholics worldwide. We are all, in a sense, looking at the same thing.
The funeral rite for a pope is the same as the one for any other Catholic. Besides a few ornate trappings and the large assembly of around 50,000, this historic celebration was just like any funeral Mass — an expression of the universal Church.
Most of the sung and spoken words were in Latin, perhaps not understood verbatim yet essentially comprehensible. The swing of the thurible, the sprinkling of holy water, the elevation of the chalice and paten, the exchange of the sign of peace — signs and gestures such as these spoke as they always do.
In the quiet stillness of the middle of a winter night, the Church once more summoned us to unity, calling us to turn our collective gaze toward Christ.