God’s call still shaping Pope Benedict’s life 60 years later

The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, is kept with suitable solemnity in Rome, with the Holy Father offering Mass at St. Peter’s on the patronal feast of his diocese. Ten years ago, in 2001, Blessed John Paul asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to celebrate the Mass in his stead. It was the 50th anniversary of Ratzinger’s priestly ordination, 29th June 1951, and the honour of offering the patronal Mass in the Holy Father’s presence was thought both a tribute to Ratzinger’s long service, and, perhaps, a prelude to a farewell earnestly sought by Ratzinger himself.

The farewell never came; the long service continued. Now, on the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination, Ratzinger will offer the Mass for the two princes of the apostles, not in place of anyone, but as Bishop of Rome himself.

Sixty years of faithful service in any vocation is a remarkable testimony of cooperation with God’s grace. The 60 years of Pope Benedict are all the more remarkable given that, since being called from his professor’s chair to the episcopate in 1977, he has been labouring in a section of the vineyard that he did not choose. On April 19, 2005, the cardinals chose him to be pope.

Joseph Ratzinger has long desired to devote his life to scholarship. Had it been up to him, his 60th anniversary would be spent, if not in heaven, in retirement in his library, studying and writing theology. But even as a young man Joseph knew that God might be calling him to something different.

“In the years I was studying theology in Munich, I had to struggle,” Ratzinger said in the 1996 interview book, Salt of the Earth, recalling his years in the seminary. “I was fascinated by academic theology. I found it wonderful to enter into the great world of the history of the faith; broad horizons of thought and faith opened up to me, and I was learning to ponder the primordial questions of human existence, the questions of my own life. But it became clearer and clearer that there is more to the priestly vocation than enjoying theology, indeed, that work in a parish can often lead very far away from that and makes completely different demands. In other words, I couldn’t study theology in order to become a professor, although this was my secret wish. But the Yes of the priesthood meant that I had to say Yes to the whole task, even in its simplest forms.”

The young Joseph Ratzinger wanted to be a theology professor. He understood that God was calling him to be a priest. The two are obviously compatible, but they are not the same.

The priesthood is always deeper than any human aspiration, even those human aspirations which appear most congruent with the priestly call. It was possible of course to be a professor without being a priest, but that was not what Joseph knew God was asking of him. He was called to be a priest to be sure, and likely a professor too, but the former vocation would always take precedence over the latter apostolate.

As things turned out, Fr. Ratzinger spent little time in the parish before being assigned to academic work — a rather obvious decision for his superiors, given his scholarly brilliance. Yet “the whole task” of the priestly vocation was awaiting him. The call came in 1977. Pope Paul VI wanted him to be archbishop of Munich.

“I had, of course, very great doubts at first about whether I should or ought to accept the appointment,” Ratzinger explained. “I had little pastoral experience. I felt that, in principle, I was called from the beginning to teach and at this period of my life — I was 50 years old — I had found my own theological vision and could now create an oeuvre with which I would contribute something to the whole of theology.

“I then took counsel and was told that in an extraordinary situation such as we live in today, it is also necessary to accept things that don’t seem to be in the direction of one’s life from the beginning,” Ratzinger continued. “Today the problem of the Church is very closely tied to that of theology. In this situation, even theologians have to be available as bishops. So I accepted.”

So he did. There would be other acceptances to come. The summons to Rome by Blessed John Paul. The same pope’s refusal to allow his chief lieutenant to retire. The call to the chair of Peter at the age of 78.

Sixty years on, Benedict is saying Yes to “the whole task of the priesthood.” It likely does not correspond to the Holy Father’s desire to wish him ad multos annos — many more years! — but Fr. Joseph Ratzinger learned long ago that God’s call, not his own will, would shape his life.