Benedict XVI’s gift to priests: The ministry people really need
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the remarkable embodiment of the priesthood by Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was a great gift to priests. Thanks to a collection of his homilies for chrism masses, ordinations and other occasions, this is a gift that keeps on giving. While I have no interest in “reviewing” the book, I do want to describe the essential nature of the gift.
At least from his consecration as a bishop in 1977, Ratzinger emphasized that the worth of a priest is not to be found in social achievement but in speaking and acting in the Person of Jesus Christ. This principle was established beautifully in his homily at the Chrism Mass for his diocese in 1979. In it, he referred back to a story John Paul II had included in a letter to priests on Holy Thursday. The Pope described a custom practiced behind the Iron Curtain where there were no priests. The laity would visit the grave of a priest, lay the priestly stole on the tombstone, and say the Eucharistic Prayer. Then, at the place where the consecration should have occurred, there would be silence.
Paraphrasing the letter, Ratzinger preached:
The pope then goes on…. Dear brothers, when doubts about your vocation sometimes assail you, when you doubt the meaning of it and ask yourselves whether it is socially unproductive or even useless, then reflect on this fact. Think how much these people yearn to hear the words that only the lips of a priest can pronounce. How much they yearn to receive the Body of the Lord. How anxiously they are waiting for someone to be able to tell them, “I forgive your sins.”
Again and again, the future Pope Benedict XVI stressed that the essence of the priesthood is to do what only the priest can do: Speak in the person of Christ. For example:
No man can dare on his own to use the “I” of Christ as his I” without blaspheming. No one can say on his own authority: “This is my body.” “This is my blood.” “I absolve you from your sins.”… So this is the most profound and at the same time the most exciting gift of the priestly ministry, which only the Lord himself can give: not only to relate his words as words of the past, but to speak here and now with his “I”.
Throughout his preaching, Ratzinger emphasized that a fruitful priesthood requires an interior correspondence to this speaking in the person of Christ. The priest, he argued, must in the first place believe, and believe in a way that transforms his entire life, if he is to speak in the voice of Christ. The priestly life must be lived in the spirit of Our Lord’s beatitudes. That life must not be bound up primarily in socio-political causes or even ecclesiastical programs. Nor must it include that human calculation of how many hours remain for the priest and his private concerns:
The ones who need to do that are the ones whose profession is something that exists alongside their life. But being a priest is not something that we have to build for ourselves alongside our life as our own acquisition; it is our very life. And it can find no greater task than to be a witness to the love of Jesus Christ. [This and all preceding quotations from the homily cited in the introduction.]
A different view of time
If this is to be true, then we must understand another important insight offered in Ratzinger’s homilies. I refer to the concept of “Resurrection time”. While this view of time applies to all Christians, it carries within it an essential orientation which must be present in the lives of priests. Ratzinger saw this reflected in the symbolism of the laying on of hands, including grasping the head, during the rite of ordination. This is, he said, “a gesture of occupancy. It is supposed to belong to the Lord. Its thinking, hearing, seeing, speaking should be at his disposal” (from homily for the ordination of five Jesuits in 1977).
If the priest is thus possessed by the Lord in a special way, it follows that the priest, more than all members of Church, should not only be an historical witness to the Resurrection but actually live in the Risen Christ. One of the most important manifestations of this is to live in Resurrection time. As Ratzinger explained:
Someone who believes in the Resurrection does not have to look out for himself and his self-fulfillment, for fear of missing something that life has to offer; rather he knows that infinity is his space, that he has no need to flee but can turn to others in service. The haste that attempts to exhaust the moment, the anxiety that fears missing out on life, is a sign of a world that does not know the Resurrection. [This and remaining quotes from a homily for priestly ordination in Friesing, 1979]
I write from bitter interior experience in mentioning the opposite tendency, the tendency to be jealous of our time, to be afraid of losing time, to rush in our service to others because of the importance of “my time”. Here we are, faithful Christians, still acting as if we do not have even more than all the time in the world! It is so easy to fall into worldly temporal patterns, worrying about all we must do, or even worrying about what we might miss. This anxiety, too often at the core of our being, communicates itself to others, and particularly to those we purport to serve.
Priests must be special witnesses to the Resurrection especially, then, in their sense of time, especially through the manner in which they spend time with others. Again, the priest must know that “infinity is his space”, and that he has no need to fit everything into a schedule, no need to signal anxiety about time, no need to rush.
The habit of Resurrection time is something fundamental that communicates a wonderful gift. While certainly pertaining also to the universal priesthood, this must be part of what it means for the ordained priest to speak the words of Christ as his own words—for the priest’s “I” and Our Lord’s “I” to be one and the same. Policies, programs, schedules, meetings, specific duties, and unwanted interruptions—all of these are part of the priestly day. But it is when priestly life truly embodies this profound identity with Christ in Resurrection time—and only then—that it becomes what Our Lord intended it to be: The sacred ministry that saves the world even from the ravages of time itself.
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