‘A simple, humble coworker in the vineyard of the Lord’

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On a crisp and clear Bavarian Sunday in 1936, a pensive young child, the son of a local police commissioner, sat in the local church of a village of less than 500 people. His family had long prepared him for this day and he reflected on the significance of sharing it with about 30 other children.

“It was a sunny day, the church looked very beautiful, there was music … I understood that [that morning] Jesus had entered my heart, he had actually visited me. And with Jesus, God himself was with me. And I realized that this is a gift of love that is truly worth more than all the other things that life can give. So on that day I was really filled with great joy, because Jesus came to me, and I realized that a new stage in my life was beginning….”

Seven decades later that former communicant, displaying the same rather introspective and reserved personality, walked rather shyly out before the cheering multitudes in St. Peter’s Square and declared himself a “simple, humble coworker in the vineyard of the Lord.” Shortly thereafter, in his first homily as pope, Joseph Ratzinger would reiterate the sentiments of his young heart in that Bavarian village so many years prior, praying “Mane, nobiscum Domine! (Stay with us, Lord!).”

Like all channels of grace within the church, Ratzinger viewed these moments as formative of the person he was and was to become. One of his doctoral students, D. V. Twomey, reported that his teacher always recognized that “the Christian sacraments are rooted in primordial human experiences that arise at crucial moments in life, namely fertility, birth, the transition to [adulthood], marriage, the assumption of leadership, and, finally death, the transition to the Beyond” (The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, xxii).

In all the diverse settings of his life — the flower-strewn German streets during holyday festivals of youth, the stressful nights of compulsory military patrols along the Hungarian frontlines of World War II, the fierce intellectual and social debates raging through 1960s European university classrooms, the interminable bureaucratic meetings of multiple Vatican congregations, the “Room of Tears” where a newly-elected pontiff can take a moment in solitude to reflect on the magnitude of his new responsibility — Ratzinger continued to view God as really and substantially present in his life; “the Lord has always taken me by the hand and guided me, even in difficult situations.”

Like his dissertation subject St. Augustine, Benedict XVI recognizes that God remains with us throughout every stage of our personal and spiritual development, “more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.”

During Ratzinger’s prominent pre-papal position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he granted three extensive interviews to journalists which were subsequently turned into the books The Ratzinger Report, Salt of the Earth, and God and the World. These dialogues provide insight for Catholics who seek to encounter their spiritual shepherd beyond the critical media headlines and sound bytes. While his perspectives and procedural decisions sometimes give rise to controversy, no one who reads the words of Ratzinger himself can fail to grasp the deep intellectualism and committed discipleship of the typically Teutonic academic.

It seems an appropriate enterprise and reflection to close a series on great popes with the current pontiff’s own words about serving the church and the world. “The ministerial priesthood involves a profound bond with Christ, who gives himself to us in the Eucharist. When the celebration of the Eucharist truly becomes the center of your priestly life, it will then also become the center of your ecclesial mission. In effect, Christ calls us throughout our lives to participate in his mission, to be witnesses, so that his Word may be proclaimed to all. In the celebration of this sacrament in the name and person of the Lord, it is not the person of the priest who should be put at the forefront: he is a servant, a humble instrument referring back to Christ, since it is Christ who offers himself in sacrifice for the salvation of the world.”

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.