The Death of Cardinal Tomás Spidlík, S.J. Part I

ResurrectionLast Tuesday, April 20th, Pope Benedict XVI delivered the homily at the funeral Mass for Cardinal Spidlík. As always, the words of the Holy Father are touching and practical; yet, at the same time, they are filled with great theological depth. In this particular homily, Benedict introduces themes of theology that appear consistently in his thought: hope, joy, and the significance of the heart. In this two-part post, I want to examine the homily of Benedict through the lens of these three theological subjects.

The Pope opens the homily with some of the Cardinal’s last words before his death. They are beautiful, and in themselves, a reflection could be written: “Throughout my life I have sought the Face of Jesus and I am now happy and at peace because I am about to go and see him”. In a recent post, we have already reflected—briefly—over the theological understanding of death, especially through the thought of Benedict. Not surprising, then, the Holy Father is drawing the same conclusion as before—this time, through the words of another Christian. In the person of Jesus Christ, the dark, unknown abyss has been opened, has been walked through; and not just that, but the abyss itself has been conquered. Love has defeated that sting of death (cf. 1 Cor 15:54-55 ); love has given birth to a hope, rooted in the supernatural, that grants man true life, thereby making it possible to overcome the burden of death.[1]

Benedict then uses Christology to further enlighten the Cardinal’s words. He sees a connection with the Gospel reading: “‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given before me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world’ (Jn 17:24)…Christ’s desire is far more than an aspiration: it is a will…[And] it is precisely here, in this desire [of Christ] that we find the ‘rock’, the solid foundation for believing and for hoping. Jesus’ desire, in fact, coincides with God the Father’s and, with the work of the Holy Spirit, constitutes for the human being a sort of sure ‘embrace’, strong and gentle, which leads him to eternal life”. Man discovers eternal life, in the present, when he discovers Jesus Christ, who serves His own food, which is the will of the Father, to all those who come to Him. In addition, I think the Pope is also preaching, perhaps cryptically, an important message about our human will. It is most perfected and mature when it is at the same level of being as Jesus’ will; Jesus, the ‘last man’, who is the perfect image of God, shows that a holy will is not simply one in harmony with God, but one that is itself desire. It seems to me that Benedict is drawing a conclusion here, namely, that for the human person, he is most free, most able to will rightfully and in truth, when his will is a desire, and that means a longing, a reaching. Ultimately, when will equals total desire to and for love, then man experiences inner freedom, liberation, theosis.

The next part of the homily, the Pope reaches into the Cardinal’s personal life. He preaches about humor, to be precise. Those “immersed in… grace”, the Holy Father explains, are able to persevere through affliction “without losing trust, indeed, on the contrary… [they display a] keen sense of humor which is certainly a sign of intelligence but also of inner freedom”.[2] Here, we run into this Pope’s consistent message about Christianity: communicating joy to others. This is an invitation for all Christians and peoples: laugh. The Christian hope is in a God of joy, a God of salvific suffering: “Your sorrow will turn into joy”, He says (Jn 16:20). It is the same God who, in His intercession in the life of Sarah, causes her to say: “God has made me laugh; every one who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6). The importance of communicating joy, of developing a sense of humor where one can look into another’s eyes and, because of his deep love for God, shares with them a taste of divinity, eternity, and paradise, is obvious. When we do that, the fruit is almost always laughter—a laughter that has its source in the human heart. When love touches the heart, the nucleus of the person, it expresses the “laughter of redemption”, a phrase Ratzinger has used before.[3]

Benedict sees the synthesis of hope and joy imbedded in the Easter message—hence its importance for Christians, Easter people. He begins to lay out this synthesis, where hope and joy meet, by first drawing upon the fulfillment of Psalm 16 in Jesus Christ: “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will dwell in hope” (Acts 2:25-26; cf. Ps 16[15]:8-9). This verse outlines the fruits of redemption. First, foundation: humanity has truth, in Person, which serves as man’s true food, and a bedrock for his being; secondly, gladness and joy; and thirdly, living by dwelling in hope. Returning to the the Psalmist’s prayer, it encounters “superabundant fulfilment when Christ…is not abandoned in Hades. He was the first to know ‘the path of life’ and was filled with joy by the Father’s presence (cf. Acts 2:27-28; Ps 16[15]:11)”. Additionally, “[t]he hope and joy of the Risen Jesus are also the hope and joy of his friends…[by the] action of the Holy Spirit”. The whole person of Jesus Christ can be understood as pro-existence, as existing-for-others; thus, His victory on the Cross disseminates throughout creation, and is magnified in the lives of those closest to Him—those close to His heart, which is closest to the Father’s (cf. Jn 1:18), the source and being of Happiness. At the same time, a component of pneumatology enters into the dialogue. Living in the spirit of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection is living, simultaneously, within the ministry of the Holy Spirit. By the action of the Holy Spirit, hope and joy are communicated to others. When we enter into dialogue with Jesus Christ, the whole spectrum and relationship of the Trinity is before us.

[1] In his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, the Holy Father writes in the opening sentences: “Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope”. Benedict identifies redemption in assocation with hope.

[2] See Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), 111-121 for a reflection on Easter, in which the theologian includes a theology of laughter.

[3] Ibid.