On June 29, 1951, Pope Benedict XVI was ordained a priest, an event rarely mentioned in the barrage of publicity surrounding his stunning resignation from the papacy. Never mentioned is the fact that Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Munich ordained him.
His priestly ordination, and Cardinal Faulhaber, are excellent points to begin a recollection of Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, as a figure in history, as a servant of the Church and as a man.
Cardinal Faulhaber was archbishop of Munich from 1917 to 1953, arguably the most important German bishop during Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship. It is a wonder that the cardinal survived those times, because on so many occasions he publicly opposed Hitler. If ever fearlessness and the role of a bishop come into conversation, think of Cardinal Faulhaber.
When the pope was ordained a priest, the ceremony was about him. In a powerful, profound way, it also was about people — about the baptized and the believing, certainly, but actually about all people.
As is the case with any priest, the newly ordained Father Ratzinger was ordained for people. He received the gift of priesthood to be able to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to present again, and unite with, the supreme sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. He was ordained to nourish people with the Body and Blood of Christ. He was ordained to free people from sin. He was ordained to bring peace to people’s hearts and freedom to their souls. He was ordained, standing in the place of Christ, to convey to people eternal life.
He was ordained to be part of the Church. The Church has several definitions. If structure applies, it exists to serve the spiritual needs of people by leading them to the Lord.
As years have passed, he has been, and still is, highly regarded as a superb theologian. I have read and heard enough about him from people who know him well to believe that he is a gentle and considerate man. He loves the great traditions of Catholicism. He has held positions of great responsibility.
Still, in the days after Pope Benedict’s startling announcement that he will resign the papacy, I have thought of him first and foremost as a priest. He authentically has been a priest. He has given himself. He has served — people.
Unlike Cardinal Faulhaber, he has not been required, at least in his adult years, to live in an environment smothered by tyranny and evil. Nevertheless, for much of his adult years he has had to contend with the tyranny of godlessness and selfishness. In the last analysis, these ungodly characteristics lie at the heart of the secularism that so dominates Western civilization at this moment in time.
As a teacher, author, bishop, Vatican official, and since 2005 as pope, he has battled secularism. He has not had to fear arrest by the Gestapo, Hitler’s merciless secret police, as Cardinal Faulhaber would have had to be concerned. Pope Benedict, however, risked, and endured, misunderstanding, unpopularity and criticism in so many roles in which he was called to serve. Responses to him all through his life have hardly always been affirming.
On June 29, 1951, he gave himself to Christ, body and soul, for all his life, for people, just as the Son of God came to give life to people. In a quiet, elegant and gentle way, he has been persistent with the determination of the fearless.
News reports have labeled him as a man of the Church. I suspect that the title will sound certain negative overtones, at least in the minds of some. For me, it essentially means that he has been a man of the Church, indeed even in the sense of structure, profoundly driven by the belief that the Church exists to bring life to people.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.