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Before he was Pope Benedict XVI, or Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, our new pope was a young Bavarian seminarian. In his autobiography, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, Joseph Ratzinger recounts his ordination on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul in Freising, Germany, in 1951, and his first years as a parish priest and then completing his doctorate while teaching at the seminary.

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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.

Made strong by the experience of these weeks, on August 1 I began my ministry as assistant pastor in the parish of the Precious Blood in Munich. The greater portion of the parish lay in a residential suburb in which intellectuals, artists, and high government officials lived; but there were also rows of houses belonging to employees and people who worked in small shops, as well as butlers and maids, who in those days belonged to wealthier households. The rectory had been built by a famous architect. It was homey but too small, and the great number of people who came to help out in various functions often created a hectic atmosphere. But the important thing was my encounter with the pastor, good Father Blumschein, who not only said to others that a priest had to “glow” but was himself a person who glowed within. To his last breath he desired with every fiber of his being to offer priestly service. He died, in fact, bringing the sacraments to a dying person. His kindness and inner fervor for his priestly mission were what gave a special character to this rectory. What at first glance could appear to be hectic activity was in reality the expression of a continually lived readiness to serve.

I surely was in need of such a model, because the load of tasks assigned to me was great. I had to give sixteen hours of religious instruction at five different levels, which obviously required much preparation. Every Sunday I had to celebrate at least two Masses and give two different sermons. Every morning, I sat in the confessional from six to seven, and on Saturday afternoons for four hours. Every week there were several burials in the various cemeteries of the city. I was totally responsible for youth ministry, and to this I had to add extracurricular obligations like baptisms, weddings, and so on. Since the pastor did not spare himself, neither did I want to, nor could I spare myself. Because of my scant practical training, I had at first some difficulty with these duties. But soon the work with the children in the school, and the resulting association with their parents, became a great joy to me, and the encounter with different groups of Catholic youth also quickly generated a good feeling of community. To be sure, it also became evident how far removed the world of the life and thinking of many children was from the realities of faith and how little our religious instruction coincided with the actual lives and thinking of our families. Nor could I overlook the fact that the form of youth work, which was simply a continuation of methods developed between the two World Wars, would not be able to deal with the changing circumstances of the world we now lived in: we simply had to look for new forms. Some of the insights that came to me as I experienced these changed conditions I gathered up some years later in my essay “The New Pagans and the Church”, which at that time triggered a lively discussion.

My assignment to the seminary at Freising, which my superiors decided would begin on October 1, 1952, aroused various reactions in me. On the one hand, this was the solution I had desired, the one that would enable me to return to my theological work, which I loved so much. On the other hand, I suffered a great deal, especially in the first year, from the loss of all the human contacts and experiences afforded me by the pastoral ministry. In fact, I even began to think I would have done better to remain in parish work. The feeling of being needed and of accomplishing an important service had helped me to give all I could, and this gave me a joy in the priesthood that I did not experience in so direct a manner in my new assignment. I now had to give a series of lectures to the last-year students on the pastoral aspects of the sacraments, and, although the experience I could draw on was rather limited, at least it was recent and fresh in my mind. To this was added work in the cathedral—liturgical services and hours in the confessional—as well as the responsibility of a youth group started by my predecessor. Above all I had to complete my doctorate, which at that time was no mean proposition: in each of eight subjects I had to pass a one-hour oral examination and complete a written examination, and the process culminated in an open debate for which I had to prepare theses from all theological disciplines. Especially for Father and Mother, it was a great joy when, in July 1953, I walked across the stage and received the cap as doctor of theology.


For more about the life and work of Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, including a complete list of his books published by Ignatius Press, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com author page.

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