When Joseph Ratzinger was drafted into the Nazi armed forces, his commanding officer asked him what he planned to do, what profession he wanted to pursue.
He said he wanted to be a priest. The officer dismissively told him that there would be no need for priests in the new Germany the Nazis were building.
On June 29, 2021, Ratzinger celebrated the 70th anniversary of his ordination. His priesthood has lasted nearly six times as long as the Third Reich. The future needed priests rather more than it needed Nazis.
Ratzinger’s boyhood was marked by several family moves, as his father paid a social and professional price for his outspoken anti-Nazi convictions. Consequently, the Ratzinger family was confronted early on with the question of salvation. Was it the gift of Christ crucified, or was it something that a man, a party, a regime could seize if only powerful enough? It was an ancient question that history put to Ratzinger as a teenager.
It was also the question Jesus and Satan disputed in the desert. Benedict XVI wrote about the temptation of turning stones to bread in his first volume of Jesus of Nazareth.
Did not, and does not, the Redeemer of the world have to prove his credentials by feeding everyone? Isn’t the problem of feeding the world—and, more generally, are not social problems—the primary, true yardstick by which redemption has to be measured? Does someone who fails to live up to this standard have any right to be called a redeemer? …
Jesus has emerged victorious from his battle with Satan. To the tempter’s lying divinization of power and prosperity, to his lying promise of a future that offers all things to all men through power and through wealth—he responds with the fact that God is God, that God is man’s true Good.
Even before his priestly ordination at 24, Ratzinger had to confront the “divinization of power and prosperity.” He followed his father in rejecting that “lying promise of a future” that was passing away even then.
He would devote the next 75 years, including these last eight of quasi-monastic retirement, to the primacy of God, the search for him, and the conviction that he could be found because he reveals himself to us:
What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought? He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God, and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little.
Throughout his astonishing life, Ratzinger has never wavered from the foundational conviction that God alone can provide what man ultimately needs, and that any regime, any party, any man who attempts to usurp that will be, sooner or later, left behind by history.
That too applies to the Church. If the Church mimics what the world offers, relying upon her cultural power and social prestige, she will fail. In his famous 1969 prophecy of a smaller, purified Church stripped of many of her privileges, Ratzinger spoke of the priests we need:
We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers. It is utterly superfluous. Therefore, it will destroy itself. What will remain is the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church that believes in the God who has become man and promises us life beyond death. The kind of priest who is no more than a social worker can be replaced by the psychotherapist and other specialists; but the priest who is no specialist, who does not stand on the [sidelines], watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal of man, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear, such a priest will certainly be needed in the future.
Ratzinger would live long enough to see the future he predicted come to pass; “the real crisis” that had scarcely begun in 1969 is now upon us. And he would provide a model for the priest who comes “in the name of God.”
A few weeks after the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination in 2011, Benedict was in Madrid for World Youth Day. The festive evening vigil of testimonies and songs he inherited from St. John Paul II; in 2005 he introduced to the program an extended period of Eucharistic adoration. Leading over a million people in silent adoration, it was Benedict’s most dramatic witness to the primacy of God.
In Madrid the vigil was disrupted by a sudden and fierce storm. The rain came down so heavily that Benedict himself disappeared behind a shield of umbrellas wielded by his master of ceremonies. The thunder and lightning seemed to threaten everything. And then it passed.
“After the storm there was a great peace, total silence, with adoration in the great monstrance of the Cathedral of Toledo,” former papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi recalled recently. “At the center of this massive gathering was Jesus in the Eucharist...It was a metaphor for [Benedict’s] whole pontificate. After the problems, storms, tensions…one arrives at the final point of adoration and union with God in peace, before Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist.”
The great monstrance of Toledo, a masterpiece of Gothic art, is over twelve feet tall. The answer given visually in Madrid—man in his littleness before God in his majesty—is being lived out ten years later in the hidden chapel of the Mater Ecclesiae residence in the Vatican Gardens.
There Benedict contemplates the Jesus who has brought us God, grateful for the gift of the priesthood through which the true and enduring future is brought continually into the world. The tempest of history is now behind Benedict. There are only a few years left. But he has already arrived at the final point—adoration and peace.
Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.
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