Tuesday, June 28, 2011

60 Years

Dominus conservet eum, vivificet eum, beatum faciat eum in terra et non tradat eum in animam inimicorum eius. ("May the Lord Preserve him, give him life, make him blessed upon earth, and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies.") For centuries that Latin verse was the automatic response to the liturgical invocation, Oremus pro beatissimo Papa nostro. And it resounds again this week in the Church's prayer for Pope Benedict XVI, as he gives thanks for 60 years of priestly life and ministry.

Just the other day, i was rereading the early chapters of Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. From the vantage point of today, even in the grip of global recession, it is difficult to re-imagine what it was like to live in Europe in its devastated post-war state - devastated not only physically, socially, economically, and politically, but culturally and spiritually. For all that, it was still what it is sadly now no longer. It was still Christian. Indeed, west of the recently created "Iron Curtain," religious faith seemed to be experiencing something of a revival, penetrating even the apparently intractable political world, where the newly constituted Christian Democratic Parties were thriving as the most viable alternative to both the horrors of the recent past and the horrific prospect of an alternative Communist future.

That was the world - specifically, the Europe - in which Joseph Ratzinger (together with his brother Georg and some 40 others) was ordained a priest on June 29, 1951, by the aristocratic Archbishop of Munich Michael Cardinal Faulhaber (who, amazingly, had occupied that ancient See since 1917!). The future, as the old Marriage Exhortation used to say, was then hidden from him. All he could know for sure was that he was now a priest. But, as any priest learns quickly enough, that is the most important thing to know about oneself.

Benedict's own account of his experience of acquiring that knowledge (reprinted today on the newly created The Vatican Today website) says it all:

“We were more than forty candidates, who, at the solemn call on that radiant summer day, which I remember as the high point of my life, responded “Adsum”, Here I am. We should not be superstitious; but, at that moment when the elderly archbishop laid his hands on me, a little bird—perhaps a lark—flew up from the high altar in the cathedral and trilled a little joyful song. And I could not but see in this a reassurance from on high, as if I heard the words “This is good, you are on the right way.” There then followed four summer weeks that were like an unending feast. On the day of our first Holy Mass, our parish church of Saint Oswald gleamed in all its splendor, and the joy that almost palpably filled the whole place drew everyone there into the most living mode of “active participation” in the sacred event, but this did not require any external busyness. We were invited to bring the first blessing into people’s homes, and everywhere we were received even by total strangers with a warmth and affection I had not thought possible until that day. In this way I learned firsthand how earnestly people wait for a priest, how much they long for the blessing that flows from the power of the sacrament. The point was not my own or my brother’s person. What could we two young men represent all by ourselves to the many people we were now meeting? In us they saw persons who had been touched by Christ’s mission and had been empowered to bring his nearness to men. Precisely because we ourselves were not the point, a friendly human relationship could develop very quickly.”

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