“You continue serving the Church, you never stop contributing to its growth with real vigour and wisdom,” Francis said today, addressing his predecessor, Benedict XVI on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of Ratzinger’s priestly ordination on 29 June 1951 in Freising Cathedral. Joseph Ratzinger was ordained a priest on the same day as his elder brother Georg. In his final greeting to Francis, which he pronounced off the cuff, Benedict XVI said: “I hope you will continue along this path of mercy,” adding, “your kindness is my home and the place where I feel safe”.
The little celebration was a sober affair, just as Ratzinger had wanted and as Pope Francis himself had said it would be, in his conversation with journalists on board the return flight from Yerevan on 26 June. This cast aside the theory about the Petrine ministry being “shared” between the Popes instead of there being just one Pope.
Francis embraced Benedict XVI who was sitting at the foot of the platform and again, after delivering his speech. Meanwhile, the Sistine Chapel Choir sang the “in insigni die solemnitatis vestrae” hymn.
In his speech, Francis said to his predecessor: “In one of the many beautiful pages you dedicate to the priesthood, you underline that when Jesus definitively calls Simon, in the way he looks at him, the question he is asking deep down is: ‘Do you love me?’ How beautiful and true this is! Because it is here, as you say, the Lord bases the act of leading to pasture (pascere), on these very words ‘I love you’, because only if we feel love towards the Lord can He lead people to pasture through us: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.”
“This is the note that dominates an entire life spent in service of the priesthood and of true theology which you did not refer to as “seeking the beloved” by chance; this is what you have always born witness to and what you still bear witness to today: that the only thing that really matters in our daily lives – come rain or shine – (with this one thing everything else just comes) is that the Lord is truly present, that we want him, that we are spiritually close to him, that we love him, that we really believe deeply in him and by believing we truly love him.”
“It is this love,” Francis emphasised, “that trully fufils our hearts, it is this faith that drives us to walk on water with confidence and calm, even in the midst of a storm, just as Peter did; it is this love and this faith that allows us to look to the future not with fear or nostalgia, but with joy, even in the later stages of life.”
The Pope then went on to speak about the conditions in which Benedict XVI lives as a Pope Emeritus who stepped down due to health reasons. “By living and bearing witness to the only thing that matters – turning one’s focus and heart towards the Lord – in such an intense and virtuous manner, you, Your Holiness, continue to serve the Church, you never stop contributing to its growth with real vigour and wisdom; and you do so from the small Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican, which thus proves to be anything but one of those forgotten corners where today’s throwaway culture tends to dump people when they lose their strength due to age.”
“Quite the contrary,” Francis said, “and please allow your successor to emphasise this as he chose to call himself Francis! St. Francis’ journey began in San Damiano, but his most beloved place, the beating heart of the Order, the place where he founded it and where he finally surrendered his life to God, was the Porziuncola , the “small portion of land”, a little corner within the Mother of the Church; within Mary, who will remain a blessed to all generations because of her strength of faith and the fact that she lived her love for the Lord so fully. And so it was, dear fellow brother, that Providence wanted you to reach a truly “Franciscan” place that exudes a sense of tranquillity, peace, strength, trust, maturity, faith, dedication and a loyalty that do me a world of good and give me and the Church as a whole so much strength. And that, allow me to say, is where a healthy and joyous sense of humour stems from,” the Pope added spontaneously.”
Francis ended his speech with a wish addressed to his predecessor and the entire Church: “Your Holiness, may you continue to feel the hand of the merciful God supporting you, may you feel and be a testimony of God’s love; may you continue to rejoice with Peter and Paul as you walk towards faith’s final destination.”
After the Pope’s speech, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Ludwig Müller and the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, took the floor. Müller presented Benedict XVI with a book bearing the German and Italian title “Die Liebe Gottes Lehren und Lernen – Insegnare e imparare l’Amore di Dio” (Teaching and learning God’s Love).
At the end of the ceremony, Benedict XVI got up and addressed a few spontaneous and clearly pronounced words to those present: “Holy Father, dear fellow brothers, 65 years ago, a fellow brother who was ordained alongside me that day, added just one word to the commemorative holy picture, besides the name and date: “Eucaristomen”, thank you! I thank everyone here and especially you, for the kindness you have shown me since the day of your election, it moves me. Your kindness, more than the beauty of the Vatican gardens, is my home and the place where I feel safe. I hope you will continue along this path of divine mercy.”
The gathering ended with a third embrace between the Pope and the Pope Emeritus. After this, the cardinals present greeted Francis first and then Benedict, to the sound of the “Sicut cervus”, which was sung by the choir.