A Theology on His Knees: Pope Benedict XVI’s Example to Priests

Ignatius Press has brought together 45 of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s homilies on the priesthood in a single volume titled Teaching and Learning the Love of God: Being a Priest Today.

By Kathy Schiffer, September 20, 2017

“O, how great is the priest!” said Saint John Mary Vianney, the Cure of Ars. “If he realized what he is, he would die.”

In 2009, one hundred fifty years after the death of the French cleric who is venerated as the patron of parish priests, Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated a Year for Priests. In a letter penned by the pope to priests worldwide on June 19, 2009, the feast of the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, he reflected on the immense gift which the priesthood represents, not only for the Church, but also for humanity itself. “I think,” Pope Benedict wrote,

“…of all those priests who quietly present Christ’s words and actions each day to the faithful and to the whole world, striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts and their will, their sentiments and their style of life. How can I not pay tribute to their apostolic labors, their tireless and hidden service, their universal charity? And how can I not praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests who, even amid difficulties and incomprehension, remain faithful to their vocation as “friends of Christ”, whom He has called by name, chosen and sent?”

Throughout the eight years of his papacy – at priestly ordinations and first Masses, at chrism liturgies and jubilee Masses – Pope Benedict returned again and again to the subject of the priesthood. His goal in addressing priests and deacons around the world was to deepen their commitment to interior renewal for the sake of a stronger and more incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world.

Now Ignatius Press has brought together 45 of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s homilies on the priesthood in a single volume titled Teaching and Learning the Love of God: Being a Priest Today.

Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of Ignatius Press, studied with Pope-emeritus Benedict, then Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, as a doctoral student in Regensberg during the 1970s. Later, after Ratzinger had been named Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, he occasionally brought together a small group of his former students, including Father Fessio, at a monastery for intimate weekend gatherings. Those sessions would include Mass, adoration, and spirited theological discussions. Father Fessio talked with the Register about his long-time mentor and friend, and about the book’s recurrent theme: the tri-fold service of the priest in teaching, sanctification and shepherding his flock.

Father Fessio explained that the collection of homilies was originally published in Italian, edited by Fr. Carlos Granados, head of a Catholic publishing house in Spain, the Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos (Library of Christian Authors). Father Granados invited his friend Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to write an Introduction to the book. Cardinal Müller wrote candidly about problems facing priests today, noting that a lack of theological and sociological rudiments and motivations had left many priests uncertain of their role in the Church. In this collection of homilies, Cardinal Müller believed, priests and laypersons would find a scholarly theological definition of the sacrament of Holy Orders; but more than that, they would find the tools for spiritual renewal.

Pope Francis, in the Foreword to the book, praises Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI as a preeminent theologian and master of the faith, but also as a man who really believes, really prays. He pursued theology “on his knees”, said Pope Francis, and he still does.

Father Fessio reminded me that Ignatius Press has already published Pope Benedict’s essays and his papal documents. This latest volume brings together many of his homilies, which are often deeply personal and direct. Always, Father Fessio said, the work of Pope Benedict is profound. He frequently cites the readings of the day, and he explains the rich symbolism to be found in ordinary things: in a gesture, in holy oil, in the priestly vestments, in the liturgical colors.

Teaching and Learning the Love of God is a helpful resource for both priests and laypersons. Topics include the priest’s role acting in persona Christi, becoming an offering with Christ for the salvation of mankind, being there for God’s mercy, witnessing Christian joy, and more. Pope Benedict’s keen insights will help the reader to grow in personal holiness, serving as an impetus to fervent prayer and increased charity.

“And it’s definitely for lay people,” said Father Fessio, “because lay people help priests to be more priestly.” He cited an example from his own life, when he returned to the United States from Europe in the ’70s. He was teaching on a college campus, but wasn’t wearing clerical garb. A student approached him saying, “Hey, Father—we like to see priests in a Roman collar!” Urged by this layperson, Father Fessio returned to wearing clerics.

Teaching and Learning the Love of God would be a great Christmas gift for your pastor, or a cherished book to keep on your own reading table.