Twenty years ago, for the solemn feast of Sts. Peter and Paul — princes of the apostles and patrons of the city of Rome — St. John Paul II did something very unusual. He did not celebrate the papal Mass in St. Peter’s Square. He attended, to be sure — “presiding” and delivering the homily — but the main celebrant was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The Holy Father was not in poor health; he had returned 48 hours previously from his historic visit to Ukraine. Rather, it was a singular honor given to Cardinal Ratzinger on the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination. The young Joseph Ratzinger was ordained a priest in the cathedral of Freising on June 29, 1951.
“Personal holiness extended to the supreme sacrifice, missionary outreach combined with constant concern for unity, the necessary integration of spiritual charism and institutional ministry,” John Paul wrote to Ratzinger for the occasion, observing that the lives of Peter and Paul shed light on Ratzinger’s long priestly service.
Noting that Ratzinger’s service has “been a great comfort to me in the daily effort of my service to Christ and to the Church,” John Paul wrote that the holy apostles had “inspired your priestly life and your ecclesial service in the loftiest way.”
It turned out that there was still another service, more lofty still, awaiting Cardinal Ratzinger — that of succeeding John Paul.
Ten years later, on his 60th anniversary, Pope Benedict XVI would celebrate the Mass of Peter and Paul himself and would reflect at length on his long priestly service.
Given that the coincidence of the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul with Benedict’s anniversaries, one might consider the length and breadth of Ratzinger/Benedict’s service to the Church by looking at those Peter and Paul feasts in Rome on his decennial anniversaries.
1961: John XXIII’s Hopes
By his 10th anniversary as a priest, at age 34, Father Joseph Ratzinger was already an esteemed theological scholar in the prestigious Germany universities.
Vatican II was to begin in 1962. Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne asked Ratzinger to draft an important speech on the agenda for the upcoming council, to be delivered in Genoa in November 1961. Not long after Cardinal Frings delivered the speech, a bold call for reform, he was summoned by St. John XXIII. Cardinal Frings was nervous that he had upset the Holy Father; to the contrary, John XXIII told him that he had put into words exactly what the Holy Father hoped for the Council.
That the words were actually those of Joseph Ratzinger was unknown at the time. In the years ahead, Ratzinger would emerge as one of the more significant theological advisers at the Council.
On the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul 1961, Pope John was full of hope for the Council to come. It was time, he preached, for “courage,” for “remaining faithful to this doctrine, apostolic doctrine, doctrine of Christ.”
At the opening of the Council itself, Pope John would emphasize that the perennial doctrine of the Church needed to be presented in new ways suitable to new times, not to be set aside. It was a time of hope for a great missionary expansion.
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