Fr Jamie McMorrin tells how Pope Benedict inspired him to become a priest.
Early in the morning of the last day of the year, Pope Benedict XVI, in a in a voice weakened to a whisper, uttered his final words: ‘Lord, I love you!’
That one brief phrase is the summary of his entire life and work. They are the words of Peter, spoken by the first pope to the risen Lord on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
They are also the words of Joseph Ratzinger, uttered countless times throughout his long life in response to the Lord who called him to be his disciple and his priest and, in time, the pastor of his worldwide flock.
In the first paragraph of his first encyclical, which not coincidentally also had love as its central theme, he wrote that, ‘being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’
I first read those words as a 19-year-old university student. Those words, and the profoundly personal definition of Faith they summarise, helped me to understand what it means to be a Christian and how to make my own loving response to the call of God in my own life.
A Christian, the pope seemed to be saying, is someone who has encountered Jesus and who has found in that encounter the answer to their deepest questioned and most noble desires.
Like the first disciples, a Christian is one who has ‘dropped their nets’ in response to Jesus’ call to follow him, and who has allowed that call to definitively shape their future.
To the one who, like me, is tempted to focus on the sacrifices involved in this surrender, Pope Benedict assured us in his first homily as pope that ‘if we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.’ More than that, we gain, in friendship with Christ, everything in return.
There are, of course, many ways of living out this friendship. Pope Benedict repeatedly emphasised the universality of the call to holiness and to mission, regardless of our state of life. It soon became clear to me, however, that the personal path the Lord had marked out for me was to serve him and his people as a priest.
This call took me to the Scots College in Rome where I was privileged to see Pope Benedict many times and even to meet him personally on several occasions.
It happened that my first year as a seminarian had been designated a ‘Year for Priests’ in which the Pope called the Church to ‘a renewed appreciation of the grandeur and beauty of the priestly ministry.’
He had particular words of encouragement for seminarians and young people discerning a vocation and offered a vision of the priesthood which was both challenging and inspiring.
He emphasised the centrality of the sacraments, and especially the dignified and faithful celebration of the Eucharist, as well as a generous dedication to the ministry of reconciliation.
He called priests to a deeper engagement with the word of God and to nourish our preaching through careful study and a lived relationship with the Lord in daily, personal prayer.
He invited us to a deeper appreciation of the call to priestly celibacy as a witness to the chaste love of Christ for his Church. He spoke out forcefully against the scourge of sexual abuse but encouraged us not to allow these scandals to lead to discouragement and despair, but instead to be an inspiration to serve the Church with a renewed humility and a closer commitment to him.
On the 16th anniversary of his ordination, he recalled the words of Jesus addressed to the first disciples, ‘I no longer call you servants but friends.’ This little phrase, he said, ‘contains within itself the entire programme of a priestly life.’
These words bring great inner joy, but one can also feel daunted amid so many experiences of one’s own frailty and his inexhaustible goodness.’
It was in this spirit that Pope Benedict faced the hour of his death: with the conviction that the one who would judge him is his friend and his brother, who would say to him, as he breathed his last, what he had said to those first fearful and feeble disciples: “Do not be afraid! It is I!”
I hope that at the end of my own priestly life I will be given the grace to face my own judgement, that definitive encounter with the Lord, with the childlike confidence and simple faith of Pope Benedict’s eloquent, final lesson in Christian discipleship, the fitting summary of his long life as a priest and his ultimate ‘yes’ to the call of Jesus: ‘Lord, I love you!’
Fr Jamie McMorrin is a priest of the Diocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh.