The Pope Emeritus recalls his ordination and reflects on the meaning of the priesthood
It was something extraordinary.
As he stood there beneath the rococo interior of the centuries-old Bavarian cathedral, he knew something sacred was about to happen.
He was about to be ordained a priest.
Here is how Joseph Ratzinger remembered it.
“We were more than forty candidates, who, at the solemn call on that radiant summer day, which I remember as the high point in my life, responded ‘Adsum,’ Here I Am. We should not be superstitious; but, at the moment when the elderly archbishop laid his hands on me, a little bird – perhaps a lark – flew up from the high altar in the cathedral and trilled a little joyful song. And I could not but see in this a reassurance from on high, as if I heard the words, ‘This is good, you are on the right way.’” (Milestones, p.99)
The days that followed were like a grand embrace, or as Father Ratzinger would describe, “an unending feast.” There was a hunger in this German village for proximity to this newly anointed man. There was a desire for a blessing, a baptism, a consecrated host.
“In us [priests] they saw persons who had been touched by Christ’s mission and had been empowered to bring his nearness to men.” (Milestones, p.100)
To celebrate Mass, catechize parishioners, baptize, absolve, marry, anoint the sick and bury the dead. This was to bring Christ’s nearness to men. But in the midst of the celebrations and subsequent clamor for the young priest’s presence and sacramental graces, Father Ratzinger grasped a crucial truth,
“We [priests] ourselves were not the point.”
Christ is the point.
In fact, 60 years after the transformative words of Cardinal Faulhaber conferred the awesome responsibility of the priesthood upon him, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) could still hear them and feel the weight of their honor … and responsibility. In exacting fashion, the Cardinal said, “[You are] no longer servants, but friends.” In his 2011 homily reflecting on the 60th anniversary of his ordination, the pope realized,
“At that moment I knew deep down that these words were no mere formality, nor were they simply a quotation from Scripture. I knew that, at that moment, the Lord Himself was speaking to me in a very personal way. In Baptism and Confirmation He had already drawn us close to Him, He has already received us into God’s family. But what was taking place now was something greater still. He calls me His friend.” (June 29, 2011 Ordination Homily)
But what does that mean? What is it to be a friend of Christ? In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, it means to be in communion with Christ.
“Idem velle, idem nolle – wanting the same things, rejecting the same things … He knows me by name. I am not just some nameless being in the infinity of the universe. He knows me personally. Do I know him? The friendship that he bestows upon me can only mean that I too try to know him better; that in Scriptures, in the sacraments, in prayer, in the communion of saints, in the people who come to me, sent by Him, I try to come to know the Lord Himself more and more… [In] friendship, my will grows together with His will, and His will becomes mine: This is how I become truly myself.” (2011 Ordination Homily)
And friendship with Christ means to bear fruit.
“At a deep level, the essence of love, the essence of genuine fruit, coincides with the idea of setting out, going toward: It means self-abandonment, self-giving, it bears within itself the sign of the cross.” (2011 Ordination Homily)
On June 29, 2016, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, it will be 65 years since that extraordinary and transformative day beneath the rococo ceiling in Bavaria. Sixty-five years of service. Sixty-five years of sacrifice.
Sixty-five years of friendship with Christ.