By Claudia Mathis
Bishop Robert J. Cunningham offered some words of encouragement to the people of the diocese on Feb. 28 during a special Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to mark the conclusion of Pope Benedict XVI’s Petrine Ministry.
The people of the Syracuse Diocese had come to honor Pope Benedict and to hear what Bishop Cunningham had to say about the pope’s decision on Feb. 11 to step down from the papacy.
The bishop’s homily was filled with hope and encouragement.
Elizabeth Frank, a lifelong parishioner of St. Joseph-St. Patrick’s Parish in Utica, was moved to tears as she listened to the homily. She has a personal connection to Pope Benedict. “I was so close to the Holy Father,” said Frank. She became acquainted with the pope through her attendance at St. Marianne Cope’s beatification and canonization ceremonies in Rome, Italy.
“It was magnificent that he [Bishop Cunningham] focused on hope in his homily,” said Frank. “Our Holy Father also had great hope. It touched me. I cried. I’ve prayed for his successor. The bishop gave me more hope — it was a blessing.”
Jessie Prince, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Snow in Weedsport, attended the Mass because she was interested in hearing what Bishop Cunningham had to say about the pope’s resignation. “It’s the next best thing to going to the Vatican,” Prince said. “The music was awesome and I liked the homily. The bishop shared how he felt about his departure and it made it more personal.”
Prince said that she understands Pope Benedict’s desire to step down and she is looking forward to new leadership. “I’d like to see a younger pope take over — someone who is open to other people’s input and one who can bring a new outlook and new ideas to the papacy.”
Bishop Cunningham shared how he felt about Pope Benedict’s departure in the beginning of his homily. He compared his feelings to those of the two disciples in Luke 24 who, after walking and sharing a meal with Jesus on Easter evening, were disappointed when Jesus left them. They were also grateful for all that they had learned from Him.
“Those same sentiments have been a recurring theme for me these past several days,” said Bishop Cunningham in his homily. “How I wish Pope Benedict would stay with us longer to preach, to teach and to explain ever more clearly the eternal newness of the Gospel.”
Bishop Cunningham recalled how from the very beginning of his Petrine ministry, Pope Benedict stressed the fact that everyone is important and special.
Bishop Cunningham said that the pope led people closer to God through his teaching and preaching. “In his first encyclical, Deus Caritus Est,” said Bishop Cunningham, “he taught us about Christian love. And then in a second, Spe Salvi, he reminded us of the importance of hope. He told us: ‘Those who live with hope live differently.’ In the third, Caritas in Veritate, he reminded us that charity is at the heart of the church’s social doctrine.”
Andrew Suita, church organist at St. Joseph’s-St. Patrick’s in Utica, was impressed with the homily and the way that Bishop Cunningham shared his feelings. “It sounded wonderful,” said Suita. “It was very personable.”
Suita said that he had discussed Pope Benedict’s resignation with quite a few people. “I’m troubled by it,” he admitted. “The pope is a symbol of unity and it’s a sign that the papacy has been weakened.”
Bishop Cunningham offered some additional words of consolation. “Now our Holy Father begins a new form of service for us,” he said. “While he will pass from the public stage and remain hidden in the Vatican monastery, he will pray for us, reminding us that we will always be united in prayer.” The bishop explained that Pope Benedict’s new ministry does not mean that he is abandoning the church. “He stays with us but in a different capacity,” he said.
At the conclusion of his homily, Bishop Cunningham offered thanks and praise to Pope Benedict and asked the Lord’s blessing upon him.