Pope Benedict XVI Diamond Jubilee
of his Ordination to the Priesthood
Solemn High Mass – Church of SS Peter and Paul, Cork
Homily of D. Vincent Twomey
Sixty years ago today, forty young men were ordained to the priesthood in the ancient, high-vaulted Cathedral of Freising, Bavaria, through the laying-on of hands by the Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber.. Among them were the Ratzinger brothers: Georg and Joseph, the future Pope Benedict XVI, then aged 24. Recalling that "radiant Summer day", as he put it in his Memoires, he wrote: "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 path'."
The ordination was followed by a month-long series of First Masses in various churches and convents, beginning with his own parish church in Traunstein. The whole village was en fete. Carpets of rose petals lined the street from the Ratzinger family home to the church, arches of flowers marked the way, the local band played. Everyone rejoiced, above all his parents of modest means and his only sister Maria, who had cut short her own education to help finance the seminary training of her two brothers. The festivities continued for four weeks, everyone queuing up for the newly ordained priest’s first blessing.
"Everywhere", he recalled, "we were received even by total strangers with a warmth and affection I had not thought possible until that day". And he added. "In this way I learned firsthand how earnestly people wait for a priest, how much they long for the blessing that flows from the power of the sacrament. Who I was, or who my bother was, was beside the point. What could we, two youths left to ourselves, represent to the many people we now encountered? "They saw in us men who had been touched by Christ's mission and had been empowered to bring his nearness to others."
That final sentence sums up Pope Benedict’s theology of the priesthood. I shall return to it. But first a word about why I am here preaching on the anniversary of his Ordination. It concerns my own friendship with the Pope, something that would have amazed my own parents, Denis Twomey of Corrin, Waterfall, Co. Cork, and Ellen O’Connell of Carragh, then living in Washington Street, Cork. Exactly 74 years ago yesterday, they exchanged their marriage vows at this altar. They also gave me my faith – and my love for the Pope in Rome – as I grew up in the parish of Ballinglough. After my own ordination in 1970, my superiors in the Divine Word Missionaries sent me that September Germany for further studies, under a German theologian in Münster, Westphalia. As it happened, Providence led me to the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, to be interviewed by the then-Professor Joseph Ratzinger, after which he agreed to take me on as a doctoral research student. That was in January, 1971, forty years ago.
My new "Doktorvater" was young, brilliant, and inspiring as a lecturer. He always showed the greatest respect for us, his students, and gave us the greatest freedom to search for the truth. But, above all, he was reserved, humble and humorous. When speaking with him or attending his seminars, we often noticed a faint smile playing on his lips while his eyes sparkled with wit and intelligence. He lived with his sister, Maria, in a simple house at walking distance from the University, where I had the privilege of dining with them on a number of occasions. He never drove a car, so I occasionally had to act as chauffeur when he had special guests, such as the great Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.
A friend of mine told once asked the professor’s overworked secretary, Frau Elisabeth Anthofer, now gone to her reward, what was it that impressed her most about Professor Ratzinger. Alone from the massive correspondence he dictated to her, she was aware that he was in intimate contact with many of the major figures of the day on the university, in the Church worldwide, in politics, and in the arts. She thought for a moment and said: the reverence in his voice whenever he uttered the name of Jesus.
That is perhaps the most important thing we can say about Joseph Ratzinger, whose publications as a theologian, in books, articles, book reviews, sermons, etc, are too numerous to be counted. Joseph Ratzinger is overwhelmed by the love of God who showed us his face in the face of Christ. The Pope wants all people to know this and, in return, to love God. For this reason, Jesus Christ, Son of the eternal Father, Son of Mary, was and is the object of Ratzinger’s life-long theological endeavour.
This is his passion. It still continues to absorb him as Pope, despite his gruelling daily timetable, each year meeting hundreds of bishops, ambassadors, statesmen and faithful from all over the world as well as presiding over numerous ceremonies, meetings, synods and the vast Vatican administration, not to mention his travels to various counties, such as England and Scotland last year or planning for trips, such as those later this year, to Madrid for World Youth Day, to Benin in Africa and his State visit to Germany. At the beginning of Lent, he published the second volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, and is working on the third. Why? So that men and women of today will come to know and love Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Saviour.
Some time ago, the Pope expressed his desire that the Church throughout the world should not turn the celebration of his Diamond Jubilee into adulation of himself. This is typical Ratzinger. Speaking to the journalist, Peter Seewald, about the unexpected adulation he and his brother received after their ordination, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger confessed to Seewald that he kept repeating to himself: "This adulation is not for you, Joseph, but rather for the one you now represent."
This is what he still says to himself, when the crowds cheer him. You can see it in his hesitant smile. Rather than commemorating him, his person, the Pope wants us today to learn again how to appreciate the extraordinary gift to humanity which is the priesthood. His wish is that today should be "a day to promote thanksgiving to God for the gift of the priesthood and to ask God to call forth new vocations".
I already mentioned the warm reception he got as a newly ordained priest from friend and stranger alike, something that all newly ordained experience, even today. "They saw in us", he wrote in his Memoires, "men who had been touched by Christ's mission and had been empowered to bring his nearness to others." What is that mission of Christ? In a word: to reveal the ultimate truth: God’s love to the world. The priest’s task is to enable the simplest man, woman or child to see the face of God, so that, in responding to that love, man’s deepest desire, his desire for happiness, can be realized. As St Augustine, one of the Pope’s special friends, put it: "You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." The priest is there to enable man, broken, sinful, weak, to encounter God, the crucified God, to be forgiven and healed through the sacraments.
Though the laying-on of hands the priest has been touched by God’s mission to redeem the world. An ordinary layman – which is what a priest is before ordination to the diaconate – is seared by the fire of God’s love, the Holy Spirit, so that he can now effectively represent the Lord Jesus Christ himself in those central actions by which the world is redeemed. The laying-on of hands is a human gesture that links him back through the centuries to the apostles and so to Christ Jesus himself. They laying-on of hands is the sacral gesture that through the action of the Holy Spirit so changes the person of the priest in the depths of his being that a weak, sinful, human being, can act in the name of Christ. A young man is transformed into an instrument of God’s grace. It is truly astonishing and a cause for thanksgiving.
But it is also an awesome task for us who are ordained. What is that task? To draw close to God in prayer and in the poor (both the materially and spiritually poor), to bring joy into peoples lives by preaching the truth in season and out of season and by absolving them of their sins. Part of that task is to avoid the perennial temptation to clericalism. It is easy to become a kind of ecclesiastical civil servant, even a careerist preoccupied with status. Less insidious but also a temptation is one who sees his task in purely functional terms – building schools and churches, administrating a parish, chairing various committees, etc. Such tasks are necessary and should be done to the highest professional standards. But they are not enough. The priest must, first and foremost, be a man of God. And this is something that a priest cannot achieve on his own. He needs the prayers of the faithful – we need your prayers and daily sacrifices.
Finally, I should like to let you hear the Pope’s own voice, as it were, on the priest as fisher of men. In his first homily as Pope, at the Mass for the inauguration of his Pontificate, Benedict described how he saw his own role as Successor of Peter. Jesus called Peter the fisherman to be a fisher of men after the miraculous catch of fish in Galileee. Inspired by the Fathers of the Church, Benedict commented that: "… for a fish, created for water, it is fatal to be taken out of the sea, to be removed from its vital element to serve as human food. But in the mission of a fisher of men, the reverse is true. We [human beings] are living in alienation, in the salt waters of suffering and death; in a sea of darkness without light. The net of the Gospel pulls us out of the waters of death and brings us into the splendor of God's light, into true life. It is really true: as we follow Christ in this mission to be fishers of men, we must bring men and women out of the sea that is salted with so many forms of alienation and onto the land of life, into the light of God. It is really so: the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God's joy which longs to break into the world."
Today we thank God for his gift of Pope Benedict XVI to the Church and to the world in this time of both great need and of great promise. But above all, today, on the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination, we thank God for the gift of the priesthood and pray God that He may raise up more young men, who like Joseph Ratzigner, will dedicate themselves to God's joy which longs to break into the world.
To God nothing is impossible. Let us have faith. Amen.