As Benedict XVI Celebrates 70 Years as a Priest, a Homily He Gave on the Priesthood

The anniversary of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI's priestly ordination provides the opportunity to revisit some of his very wise words offered on vocations from 2000 while offering a homily in Munich.

Ordination of Father Joseph Ratzinger in 1951.
Ordination of Father Joseph Ratzinger in 1951. (photo: Screenshot / Salt and Light)

Teaching and Learning the Love of God — Being a Priest Today 

Selected Writings 

By Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger 

Ignatius Press, 2016

To order:

Bringing Christ to the People and the People to Christ 

Golden Priestly Jubilee of Monsignor Georg Schuster, Pastor Emeritus Alfons Karpf, Pastor Emeritus Ludwig Radlmaier, Georg Warmedinger, S.T.D., and Pastor Emeritus Johann Warmedinger 

Munich-Pasing, 2000 

Gospel: Matthew 16:13–19 

A half century has passed since your names were called in the cathedral in Freising at the hour of your priestly ordination and you responded: Adsum — I am ready! This is the word with which Abraham placed himself at the service of God’s call, as Samuel, the prophets of the Old Covenant, and finally the witnesses to Christ did after him down through the centuries. Adsum — I am ready, Lord, do with me what you will. Send me. I want to be your instrument. It was a Holy Year then, too, and it really was true that the Lord opened the door for us. Behind us lay the dark years of the war that had devastated Europe and in particular our land. Germany was excluded from the community of nations; hunger and privation of all sorts kept it down. During the Holy Year, the doors opened to a pilgrimage to Rome. We encountered the great family of the Catholic Church, in which there are no boundaries, and the Church welcomed us all with the power of reconciliation that comes from God. The isolation had burst open, and we could see that ultimately Christ was the one who was leading the nations beyond all those terrible events and thereby was also bringing our people back together again. 

Behind us lay the dictatorship of the Third Reich; ahead of us and beside us, on our borders in the middle of Germany, stood the power of the Soviet Union, bristling with weapons and ready to pounce. We scarcely dared to hope that it would halt at those borders. But in our midst stood Jesus Christ, and we knew that from him — and only from him — salvation could come for all: the empires of men, which were built contrary to God’s will, proved to be empires of inhumanity. The true kingdom of men and of humanity could come about only in the kingdom of God, from Christ, who is the kingdom of God in person. To him you said your Adsum with the passion and determination of your hearts after all that you had experienced: Here I am, Lord — take me into your service for the coming of your kingdom. You, dear friends, held high the flame of this Yes in the dark and bright hours of these fifty years, in storms as well as in good times, and we thank you for that at this time. 

The Gospel that we just heard (Mt 16:13–19) shows us that there are two ways of knowing Christ and encountering him. On the one hand, there are “men”, the people who encountered Christ once, heard him preach, experienced a miracle, maybe even accompanied him for a stretch, and for a moment were enthusiastic about him, but then went their way. And on the other hand, there are the Twelve whom the Lord addresses as “you”: “But what do you say about me?” “Men” perceived something about him; for them this Jesus is a great figure like the prophets and John the Baptist. You admire such figures, maybe you learn a thing or two from them also, but they do not change your way of living and dying after all. Christ is great, but, for those “men”, just one of the many greats. The disciples know him in a different, deeper way. They share his life. They begin to become acquainted with him from within. They touch him, not only with their hands, but with their hearts. By way of comparison, you might think of the story of the woman with the hemorrhage who pushes her way through the crowd to him and touches him in order to be healed. “Who touched me?” Jesus asks. To the disciples, the question seems senseless, since people are pressing on him from all sides. But here another touch has taken place — the woman’s faith touched Jesus’ heart and from it received healing. It is different and yet quite similar with the disciples: by sharing Jesus’ life, they begin to come to an interior encounter with him. They experience the hidden center of the figure of Jesus — the fact that he lives entirely with the Father. In his prayer, they sense this inmost center of his being, from which all the rest comes. And so they really know him: “You are Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

You too, dear friends, have touched Christ from within. Early on, you joined your path with his and sought a deeper closeness to him. As Jesus turned around to the healed woman, so he turned around to you, placed his hand on you, and imparted to you something of his power, so that in his name you might administer the sacraments, forgive sins, and call down his presence. He sent you, not only to hand on his words, but also to make him known personally, just as you had the privilege of becoming acquainted with him. For fifty long years, you strove to communicate to people more of Christ than what “men” say; you strove to communicate Christ himself. You pointed him out so that people could see the face of God in his face ( Jn 14:9) and thus learn to live. You did not let yourselves be dissuaded when the waters of unbelief rose again and increasingly became a dangerous flood. You put up with it when you were dismissed as old-fashioned and not with the times. You knew who really holds time in his hands. You were able to say: I know whom I have believed. And thank God, you also had the privilege of witnessing again and again the fact that from this Jesus whom you proclaimed healing power came to the people, who experienced that Jesus really is more than a prophet, namely, life itself ( Jn 14:6). 

You brought Christ to the people and the people to Christ and thus gave them the friendship that is decisive in every human life. But you knew also that no one can have Christ merely for himself alone. The Gospel is not written in the first person singular but in the first person plural: We do not pray “my Father” but, rather, “our Father”; not “give me my daily bread” but, rather, “our daily bread”; not “deliver me from the evil one and from all evils,” but, rather, “deliver us”. Christ lives in the Us of his Church, and only in this great Us of the children of God can we be with him. You knew, furthermore, that the Church is always recognizable by the sign in which she appeared at her birth on Pentecost: then, right in her first moment, the new People of God could be recognized by the fact that it speaks in all languages. It overcomes the divisions that tear human society apart. It is the unity that reconciles the diversity and leads them together in terms of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The profession of faith expresses this connection by saying: The Church is catholic — she is the Church of all nations and cultures, she spans all times and places, embraces both the living and the dead. 

Allow me to weave in a personal note: in this Holy Year, we have the privilege of experiencing in Rome in a thoroughly realistic way the reality of this catholicity. When I cross Saint Peter’s Square, indeed, when I simply step out of the house, I encounter people from all countries, of all ages, from all walks of life. They recognize me as a bishop and are glad because a bishop is for them a succes- sor of the apostles, a bearer of the mystery of the Church, a messenger of Jesus Christ. Again and again it is as though we are all old friends. No one is a stranger to the other. Through the faith, we are all acquainted. Through the Church, we all belong to each other. And what is most moving for me is the joy that is alive in all these encounters. What it says in the Acts of the Apostles (4:32): “They were of one heart and soul”, is for the moment a reality that can be experienced. Faith produces joy, and the faith unites us over and above all boundaries: that is the expe- rience of catholicity, the experience of the living Church, even today, especially today. And when I see the many young people who share in this feast of faith, then I know: the faith, the Church, has a future; indeed, she is the future. In the everyday routine of your fifty years as priests, all this very often looked much more troublesome. And yet you, too, continually experienced how you, with Christ and in the Church, had the privilege of giving people the essential gifts that we need in order to live. The Church gives us the faith and consequently friendship with God and knowl- edge about where we come from, where we are going, what we live for, and how we should live. She teaches us to pray. Alone, we do not know how we ought to speak with God (Rom 8:26), but we can pray along with the people who have prayed before us and for us and, thus, find the relationship with God that simultaneously makes possible the relationship with those who have gone before us and still remain close to us in the Lord. From faith we receive the liturgical feast as a gift—we are experiencing this today. Feasts at which God does not appear may be splendid, but something or other is lacking in the end. Only the feast in which heaven and earth harmonize, in which God’s Yes to us is palpable—only this is a complete feast in which we become certain that God was right when he said at the end of his work of creation: It is good, it is very good. If we experience the true feast, then above and beyond all the troubles and difficulties we can say: Yes, it is good that the world exists, that I exist, that we exist— and this is the joy that we men are constantly on the move pursuing. In the sacraments, the Church accompanies us from birth to death. There is Baptism as affiliation in God’s family; there is the Eucharist, in which he personally gives us himself; there is the sacrament of Reconciliation, which renews us again and again; there is the sacrament that assists us in the hour of sickness; there are the two sacraments that are the foundation of the Church’s essential states of life: Matrimony and Holy Orders. As pastors, you have accompanied people in all the seasons of life, in their hours of joy and in their hours of grief and suffering. You have helped people to live and to die. So you have many friends, on this side of the threshold of death and beyond it. When someday you knock at the door of heaven, you do not need to be afraid. There are so many people there who are waiting for you, who thank you: people to whom you showed the way. Yes, you will not be alone when you arrive. At this moment, I would like to thank you in the name of the Church, in the name of so many people, for the service of faith and life that you have given to countless people during this half century. 

We find Christ in the Church, and by her nature she is a Pentecostal-Catholic Church. But you gave the people two more additional, very practical signs for the Church: where Peter is, there is Church, and where Mary is, there is Church. In the Gospel, we heard it from the mouth of Jesus: On this rock I will build my Church (Mt 16:18). In John’s Gospel, we hear it again: Feed my lambs, feed my sheep (21:15–17). Christ gave us the successors of Peter as guarantees of unity, as reliable signs for the location of his Church. Of course the competencies of men, of popes, are not what sustain the Church. That was already the case with Peter, and in various ways it is always the case: God’s power works precisely in the weakness of men; precisely because men could not do it by themselves, we see that Christ is at work in the successors to Peter, holding up his Church. That is why in the confusion of the ages we remain faithful to the Holy Father and thank him for the ministry of unity that he humbly and faithfully performs for all of us amid the contradictions of the world. 

And there is Mary: as at Cana, through the ages she leads people to Christ. When the Christian faith was pro- claimed to the native peoples of America, the message of the conquerors must have seemed dubious. But in the image of the Mother they were then able to recognize the Lord, too. The Mother — that was not the conquerors’ religion; that was the kindly face of the true God that unveiled itself through her — in a unique way in Guadalupe. Mary became the icon of Christ for them; led by her, they could find him. And so it is down through all the ages. Anyone who says that Mary conceals Christ or leads away from him is speaking nonsense. In all centuries she brings forth Christ; through her maternal goodness, we learn to know and love him. That is why our ancestors were right to entrust our land [Bavaria] to her. That is why it was a good thing that here in Pasing — not least importantly through the initiative of Monsignor Schuster — the image of the Mother of God recovered its hereditary place at the heart of the locality, so that she encounters us right there in the middle of our daily routine and leads us to that heartfelt, uniquely saving contact with Christ. 

As chance, or rather Providence, would have it, two dissimilar news items dominated the media on the same day. On the one hand, there was the decoding of the human genome, the mathematics of our body, so to speak; on the other hand, there was the publication of the secret of Fatima, in which the genetic structure of our souls becomes apparent in a certain way: Repent and believe in the Gospel (Mk 1:15); do whatever he tells you ( Jn 2:5). Scientific knowledge about the blueprint of our physical life, however many questions it may still leave unanswered, is a wonderful gift. We may hope that as research continues it may also be of help in the fight against sickness and death. 

But, of course, it cannot do away with pain and death. Unless we receive something deeper in addition to it, we always ultimately remain the losers in this battle; for in the end, despite everything, it will be for us as it was for the woman with the hemorrhage about whom we spoke at the beginning: after long years of suffering, she had to admit that she had spent all that she had to live on and yet had not been healed (Lk 8:43). Medicine does great things and is an important help in life, but above and beyond it, we still need a more profound healing in order to be able to undergo the mystery of suffering and death. This healing can come only from the touch of Jesus Christ. Him we seek, to him we go. Mary, the Mother, leads us to him. We ask her to commend us, in our final hour and continually, even now in the middle of our life, to him whom we have the privilege of calling the blessed fruit of her womb: Jesus Christ, our Lord. 

“Christus zu den Menschen, die Menschen zu Christus bringen”, for the golden priestly jubilee of Msgr. Georg Schuster, Pastor Emeritus Alfons Karpf, Pastor Emeritus Ludwig Radlmaier, Georg Warmedinger, S.T.D., and Pastor Emeritus Johann Warmedinger, in the parish church of Maria Schutz in Munich-Pasing on July 2, 2000, in Priester aus innerstem Herzen (Munich, 2007), 313–18; previously in KlBl 80 (2000): 175–77. [B 1153]