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.
The crisis of priestly life that was made unmistakably clear in the past decade’s revelations of sexually abusive clergy had many causes, not the least of which was a toxic ambient culture to which the Church and its ordained ministers proved all too vulnerable. But if we look inside the Church’s self-understanding for reasons why priests betrayed their unique ministry in such an awful way, what we find, if we look hard enough, is a changed understanding of the very nature of the priesthood. When seminarians, 30 or 40 years ago, spoke of learning “priestcraft,” something was, it now seems clear, deeply awry. For the Catholic Church has never understood the ordained priesthood as essentially a matter of functions, nor has it understood ordination as a kind of licensing ceremony that authorizes a man to conduct certain kinds of ecclesiastical business. But that was the misunderstanding of priesthood that swept through too much of the Church around the world, and the relationship between that desperately deficient theology and the abuse crisis should now be beyond serious dispute.
A man who has truly understood himself as an icon of the priesthood of Jesus Christ does not abuse anyone, in any way. A man who has taken into himself the meaning of the Lord’s words, “I now call you friends,” does not imagine that his ordination confers membership in a caste. A man who has, like Joseph Ratzinger 60 years ago, felt the Spirit move within him knows that his ministry is not about himself, but about the pouring out of his life in service to others.
Which includes, as the Pope reflected in his jubilee homily, looking into the many hearts of darkness in the human condition, and being unafraid of confronting evil with the power of the Cross. Bishops contending with recalcitrant politicians who defy both reason and revelation in their legislating and governing might well reflect on that, as they ponder how it is that one calls these men and women to real conversion.
Throughout the Catholic world, a happy new custom has arisen of congratulating celibate priests on Father’s Day for the gift of their own unique spiritual paternity and fecundity. In part, this is a reaction to the shame that the abuse crisis has visited on those who have lived faithful lives of priestly witness, a way of saying “thank you” to the overwhelming majority of priests who have lived lives of fidelity. In that simple act of saluting spiritual fathers as well as natural fathers, the Catholic Church may also be demonstrating, however, that it has relearned some of the essential truths about the priesthood after a difficult season. Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, never forgot those truths, nor did his predecessor. That is why, when the history of this period of the Church’s life is written, Benedict XVI and John Paul II will be remembered as great reformers of the priesthood, who modeled for others the meaning of entering into a unique form of friendship with Christ through the laying on of hands in priestly ordination — and who, like their Lord, spent their lives in priestly service to others.
Happy jubilee, Your Holiness. And thank you.
— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.