Pope Benedict’s Priesthood Milestone Given Underwhelming Commemoration by Vatican

COMMENTARY: The muted observance in the Vatican contrasted with the focus given five years ago to Benedict’s 65th anniversary, when the Pope Emeritus spoke about the priestly identity of thanksgiving in his last public address.

Young Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with his family.
Young Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with his family. (photo: Vatican Media)

At age 94 and increasingly frail, it is quite possible that we will not hear from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI again. The 70th anniversary of his priestly ordination passed quietly in Rome on June 29, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul.

There was no public appearance, not even a photograph. Benedict, no longer able to stand long enough to celebrate the Holy Mass, concelebrates from his wheelchair with his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein.

As an anniversary gift, choristers who long ago had sung in the Regensburg cathedral boys came to the Mater Ecclesiae residence to sing for Benedict. That choir had been led for decades by Benedict’s late brother, Father Georg Ratzinger.

But that was it. A private liturgical gallery put on a small exhibition of items from Benedict’s long priestly life. The Holy See press office took no notice of the anniversary. It was not even included in the weekly preview of events that customarily includes anniversaries of all kinds, including this week the 14th anniversary of Benedict’s 2007 letter to Catholics in China.

Pope Francis did not make a public visit to Benedict, and there was no papal letter of appreciation as St. John Paul II sent for Ratzinger’s 50th anniversary in 2001. In his Peter and Paul Angelus address, Pope Francis added a few lines of gratitude in the section usually reserved for short comments on the news. The words for Benedict followed congratulations to L’Osservatore Romano for its 160th anniversary.

The underwhelming observance in the Vatican was striking, given the usual prominence it gives to anniversaries. No one elected pope has ever been a priest for 70 years; Pope Francis would have to live to be 103 to complete seven decades. John Paul did not make 60 years.

On his 60th anniversary in 2011, Benedict devoted the lion’s share of his Peter and Paul homily to reflecting on his priestly ordination. At the time, at the end of the ordination rite the bishop spoke to the new priests the words of Jesus: “I no longer call you servants, but friends” (John 15:15). Benedict recalled:

Jesus calls me his friend. He welcomes me into the circle of those he had spoken to in the Upper Room… He grants me the almost frightening faculty to do what only he, the Son of God, can legitimately say and do: I forgive you your sins. … I know that forgiveness comes at a price: in his Passion he went deep down into the sordid darkness of our sins. He went down into the night of our guilt, for only thus can it be transformed. And by giving me authority to forgive sins, he lets me look down into the abyss of man, into the immensity of his suffering for us men, and this enables me to sense the immensity of his love. He confides in me: “No longer servants, but friends”. He entrusts to me the words of consecration in the Eucharist. 

Five years later, Benedict’s 65th anniversary was marked with a special gathering of the cardinals in Rome, an address from Pope Francis and the formal publication of a collection of Benedict’s writings on the priesthood, edited by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

It was at that occasion that Benedict XVI gave his last public address. Speaking extemporaneously, he spoke about the priesthood as an identity of thanksgiving, a “Eucharistomen.” He recalled that one of his classmates, Father Rupert Berger, wrote that single word on his ordination card.

Eucharist. The priest is ordained for thanksgiving in the first moments of his priesthood, and it remains so after the long passage of years. 

Benedict then spoke of the words that just precede the consecration in Latin: gratias agens benedixit fregit deditque. Jesus, taking the bread, giving thanks, blessed it, broke it and gave it.

What Jesus does with the bread of the Eucharist, he also does with man ordained a priest — he takes him, gives thanks to the Father, blesses him, breaks him and gives him to the Church. Benedict was almost certainly thinking then of his friend, the late Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote that on his ordination card: benedixit, fregit, deditque.

Eucharistomen harks back to the reality of thanksgiving, to the new dimension that Christ imparts to it,” Benedict said five years ago:

“The cross, suffering, all that is wrong with the world: [Jesus] transformed all this into ‘thanks’ and therefore into a ‘blessing.’ Hence he fundamentally transubstantiated life and the world, and he has given us and gives us each day the bread of true life, which transcends this world thanks to the strength of His love.”

His voice now reduced to a whisper, Benedict no longer has public words to offer. What remains is the Eucharistomen of the former Servant of the Servants of God, who 70 years ago heard that he was no longer a servant, but a priestly friend of Jesus.

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