Joseph Ratzinger’s Diamond Jubilee
Pope Benedict has been guided throughout his ministry by his understanding of what priestly ordination means.


George Weigel

Sixty years ago today, on June 29, 1951, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber of Munich and Freising laid hands on a 24-year-old deacon named Joseph Ratzinger, ordaining him a priest — an event the future Pope Benedict XVI once described in a memoir as “the most important event of my life.” In his homily at Mass on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, 2011, the diamond jubilarian reflected on just what happened to him six decades ago in words that combine remarkable theological depth with equally remarkable rhetorical simplicity:


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Non iam dicam servos, sed amicos” — “I no longer call you servants, but friends” (John 15:15).

Sixty years on from the day of my priestly ordination, I hear once again deep within me these words of Jesus that were addressed to us new priests at the end of the ordination ceremony by the archbishop, Cardinal Faulhaber, in his slightly frail yet firm voice. According to the liturgical practice of that time, these words conferred on the newly ordained priests the authority to forgive sins. “No longer servants, but friends”: 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 had already received us into God’s family. But what was taking place now was something greater still. He calls me his friend. He welcomes me into the circle of those he had spoken to in the upper room, into the circle of those whom he knows in a very special way, and who thereby come to know him in a very special way. 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. He wants me — with his authority — to be able to speak, in his name (“I” forgive), words that are not merely words, but an action, changing something at the deepest level of being.

I know that behind these words lies his suffering for us and on account of us. 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. He trusts me to proclaim his word, to explain it aright, and to bring it to the people of today. He entrusts himself to me. “You are no longer servants, but friends”: These words bring great inner joy, but at the same time, they are so awe-inspiring that one can feel daunted as the decades go by amid so many experiences of one’s own frailty and his inexhaustible goodness.

It has been a hard decade for the Catholic priesthood and for Catholic priests, the best of whom have been deeply shamed by the conduct of a small minority of their brothers in the ministry. Pope Benedict’s homily on his diamond jubilee reminds the Catholic Church, and especially its priests and bishops, of just what is at stake in the ongoing reform of the priesthood, which was begun by Blessed John Paul II during his 26-year pontificate and which has been continued by his successor: What is at stake is nothing less than deepening a sense of the ordained priest as an icon of Christ — a human being who, through being configured to the Risen Lord in a unique way by his ordination, makes Christ present to the world in a unique way.