Reading Genesis with Cardinal Ratzinger

By Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco

 How is a Catholic supposed to read the first chapter of Genesis that details the six days of creation? In a lecture entitled, “Restoration of Traditional Catholic Theology on Origins,” given at the First International Catholic Symposium on Creation held in Rome on October 24-25, 2002, Father Victor Warkulwiz, M.S.S., a priest with a doctorate in physics, argued that the Catholic Church needs to return to a traditional Catholic theology on origins, a theology that is “based on the literal and obvious sense of Genesis 1-11.” 1 He is not alone in saying this. In recent years, Catholics of a more traditionalist bent have begun to embrace a special creationism — the belief that God created the different kinds of living things by divine fiat less than 10,000 years ago – that, in years past, was associated more with fundamentalist Protestants. 2

Catholic creationists often claim that Catholics who seek to be faithful to the Catholic tradition need to interpret the six-day creation account of Genesis in its “literal and obvious sense” as most of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church had done. Thus, they argue that the first chapter of Genesis is an accurate historical narrative, a precise description, of an event that took place over a six-day period several thousand years ago. To justify this approach, Catholic creationists cite Pope Leo XIII, who in Providentissimus Deus, his 1893 encyclical on the study of sacred scripture, taught the following:

    The opinion of the Fathers is also of very great weight when they treat of these matters [the interpretation of Sacred Scripture] in their capacity of doctors, unofficially; not only because they excel in their knowledge of revealed doctrine and in their acquaintance with many things which are useful in understanding the apostolic Books, but because they are men of eminent sanctity and of ardent zeal for the truth, on whom God has bestowed a more ample measure of His light. Wherefore the expositor should make it his duty to follow their footsteps with all reverence, and to use their labours with intelligent appreciation. But he must not on that account consider that it is forbidden when just cause exists, to push inquiry and exposition beyond what the Fathers have done; provided he carefully observes the rule so wisely laid down by St. Augustine-not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires; a rule to which it is the more necessary to adhere strictly in these times, when the thirst for novelty and unrestrained freedom of thought make the danger of error most real and proximate. 3

Though Catholic creationists admit that Leo XIII permitted Catholics to move beyond the literal and obvious sense of Sacred Scripture — what modern biblical scholars would call a literalist reading of the text 4 — they respond by asserting that contemporary Catholic exegetes have failed to show that their non-literalist reading of Genesis is justified either by reason or by necessity as specified by Leo XIII.

In this essay, I respond to the Catholic creationist movement by arguing that contemporary exegetes have sufficient reason to move beyond a literalist reading of the Genesis text. I will begin by summarizing the three hermeneutical principles employed by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, in his non-literalist interpretation of the six-day account of Genesis, traditionally called the Hexaemeron. I will then show that his method is faithful both to the teaching of the Catholic Church most recently articulated in Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, and to the teaching of his predecessor, Leo XIII, in Providentissimus Deus. Thus, I propose that Cardinal Ratzinger’s approach to reading Genesis, as a particularly noteworthy example of the hermeneutical method endorsed by Vatican II, should be paradigmatic for the contemporary Catholic exegete seeking to be faithful to the Catholic tradition.

First principle: The distinction between form and content

During the Lenten season of 1981, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, gave four homilies on creation in the Liebfrauenkirche, the cathedral church of Munich in Germany. 5 In his first homily, entitled “God the Creator,” he discusses the principles that govern his reading of Genesis. He begins by recalling the opening words of the Sacred Scriptures that highlight the creative action of God “in the beginning.” However, he goes on to ask the question that lies at the heart of the creationist debate: Are these words true? Do they count for anything? In order to answer these questions, he suggests three criteria for interpreting the Genesis text: the distinction between form and content in the creation narrative, the unity of the Bible, and the hermeneutical importance of Christology.

First, he proposes that the exegete “must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed.” 6 He must keep in mind that the Bible is, first and foremost, a religious book and not a natural science textbook. Thus, Cardinal Ratzinger concludes that Genesis does not and cannot provide a scientific explanation of how the world arose. Rather, it is a book that seeks to describe things in such a way that the reader is able to grasp profound religious realities. It uses images to communicate religious truth, images that were chosen from what was understandable at the time the text was written, “images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and in thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities.” 7 In other words, the Catholic exegete is called to respect the text as it is. He is called to read Genesis as its human author wished it to be read, not as a scientific treatise, but as a religious narrative that communicates profound truths about the Creator.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s first criterion for exegesis echoes the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. In Dei verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation, the Council Fathers taught that,

    Those who search out the intention of the sacred writers must, among other things, have regard for “literary forms.” For truth is proposed and expressed in a variety of ways, depending on whether a text is history of one kind or another or whether its form is that of prophecy, poetry, or some other type of speech. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances as he used contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. 8

Moreover, though Cardinal Ratzinger does not provide a theological justification for this criterion, the Second Vatican Council did. According to the Council, we need to respect the form of the text because “God speaks in sacred Scripture through men in human fashion.” 9 Thus, the exegete “in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.” 10 In other words, the Catholic exegete should respect the form of the Sacred Scriptures because in doing so, he respects the action of God who authored the sacred text without violating the freedom, identity, and idiosyncrasies of the human authors who wrote in different forms.

Second principle: The unity of the Holy Bible

Cardinal Ratzinger’s first criterion raises an important question: But how does one grasp the particular form of the sacred text? For instance, how do we know that the human author of the six-day creation account did not mean to write a bona fide historical narrative or a scientific treatise? He certainly could have. In his Lenten homily from 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger brings up the same question asking, “Is the distinction between the image and what is intended to be expressed only an evasion, because we can no longer rely on the text even though we still want to make something of it, or are there criteria from the Bible itself that attest to this distinction?” 11 In response, he proposes a second criterion for sound Catholic exegesis — the exegete should interpret a text from within the context of the unity of the Bible. Applying this criterion to the interpretation of the six-day creation account, we discover that the creation accounts in the Old Testament — the Hexaemeron is only one of several found in Genesis and in Psalms — are clearly “movement[s] to clarify the faith” 12 and are not scientific or historical narratives. For instance, Ratzinger notes that a study of the origins of the creation texts in the Wisdom literature especially reveal that they were written to respond to the Hellenistic civilization confronted by the Israelites. 13 Thus, it is not surprising that the human authors of these accounts did not use the image of the six days to assert their faith in the one Creator God. This image would not have been appropriate for their time and would not have been understood by their Greek contemporaries. In contrast, a study of the origins of the Hexaemeron, the six-day account of creation, found in the first chapter of Genesis reveals that it was written to respond to the seemingly victorious Babylonian civilization confronted by the Israelites several centuries before their encounter with the Greeks. Here, the human author of the sacred text used images familiar to their pagan contemporaries to refute the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation account that claimed that the world was created when Marduk, the god of light, killed the primordial dragon. 14 Thus, as Cardinal Ratzinger points out, it is not surprising that nearly every word of the first creation account addresses a particular confusion of the Babylonian age. For instance, when the Sacred Scriptures affirm that in the beginning, the earth was without form and void (cf. Gen. 1:2), the sacred text refutes the existence of a primordial dragon. When they refer to the sun and the moon as lamps that God has hung in the sky for the measurement of time (cf. Gen. 1:14), the text refutes the divinity of these two great celestial bodies believed to be Babylonian gods. These verses, and they are only two of many examples, illustrate the intent of the human author of the Hexaemeron. He wanted to dismantle a pagan myth that was commonplace in Babylon and assert the supremacy of the one Creator God. Cardinal Ratzinger concludes:

    Thus, we can see how the Bible itself constantly readapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act. In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater. 15

In sum, a comparative study of the different creation accounts scattered throughout the Sacred Scriptures reveal that they were not and are not historical or scientific narratives. They were theological arguments that used different images to communicate the same truth – the truth about the Creator and his Creation.

Again, Cardinal Ratzinger’s second criterion is not a novel invention. It echoes the teachings of Vatican II, which taught: “Since holy Scripture must be read and interpreted according to the same Spirit by whom it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly brought to light.” 16

Third Principle: Christ as the Interpretative key of the Holy Bible

Finally, the second criterion raises another important question: Why should the Sacred Scriptures be treated as a unity? What is the source of this unity? In response, Cardinal Ratzinger provides his third and final criterion for interpreting the sacred text: We are to read the Sacred Scriptures “with Him in whom all things have been fulfilled and in whom all of its validity and truth are revealed.” 17 It is Christ who unifies the Bible. The entire Bible is about him. Thus, Genesis has to be read in the context of its fulfillment in Christ. Therefore, Cardinal Ratzinger asserts that the first creation account cannot be read without reference to the conclusive and normative scriptural account of creation which begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1;3, Revised Standard Version). For Cardinal Ratzinger, it is Christ who sanctions readings of the sacred text that move beyond a strict literalist reading because it is Christ who wishes to communicate profound theological truths that penetrate the human heart and soul: “Christ frees us from the slavery of the letter, and precisely thus does he give back to us, renewed, the truth of the images.” 18

Again, Cardinal Ratzinger ’s third criterion can be found in the Vatican II documents: “God, the inspirer and author of both testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New. For, though Christ established the New Covenant in His blood, still the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament and in turn shed light on it and explain it.” 19 The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Different as the books which comprise it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover” (no. 112). All of Sacred Scripture has to be interpreted in light of Christ.

In sum, the Hexaemeron is true. However, it is true not because it communicates historical or scientific truth but because it communicates theological truth, the truth that the world was created by a God who is love. Reading Genesis with Cardinal Ratzinger’s three hermeneutical principles justifies this assertion and provides reasons for moving beyond a literalist reading of the sacred text. It is a reading of sacred scripture that is faithful both to faith and to reason.

Finally, how do we reconcile Cardinal Ratzinger’s interpretation of the six-day account of creation with Leo XIII’s teaching discussed above? Recall that in Providentissimus Deus, Leo XIII taught that Catholic exegetes are “not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires.” Catholic creationists have argued that this criterion has not been satisfied — natural science has not provided reasons for moving beyond the literal and obvious sense of the Hexaemeron. They argue that a literalist reading of the six-day creation account should only be abandoned when science has definitively disproved the narrative explicitly described in the Hexaemeron. Their argument, however, fails to recognize that Pope Leo XIII did not limit his statement to scientific reasons. A Catholic exegete has to interpret the sacred text in a manner that coheres not only with truths discovered by the natural sciences but also with truths uncovered by other fields of genuine human inquiry. In other words, interpreting the sacred text is a work of both faith and reason. As Cardinal Ratzinger has convincingly argued, in the case of the Hexaemeron, we have to depart from a reading that is limited to the literalist sense because studies of ancient texts and ancient cultures — and not natural science — have given us good and necessary reasons for doing so. Sticking to a literalist reading of Genesis would do violence to the original meaning of the human author and thus to the truth God wanted to manifest through his words. As Vatican II emphasized, like God, we too are called to respect the human author. Since he did not write a scientific or historical treatise in the Hexaemeron, we should not read it as one.


1 Victor P. Warkulwiz, M.S.S., “Restoration of Traditional Catholic Theology on Origins,” in Proceedings of the International Catholic Symposium on Creation, October 24-25, 2002. (Woodstock, VA: Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation, 2003), 17-35, p. 17

2 Dermott J. Mullen, “Fundamentalists Inside the Catholic Church: A Growing Phenomenon,” New Oxford Review 70 (2003): 31-41. For a response to Mullen’s article from Catholics who claim to be creationists, see Hugh Owen and Robert Bennett, “Are Catholic Defenders of Special Creation ‘Fundamentalists’?” at Last accessed September 1, 2004.

3 Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical letter, Providentissimus Deus, November 18, 1893, nos. 14-15. Translation of the Vatican website Last accessed September 11, 2004.

4 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, March 14, 1994, Section F: Fundamentalist Interpretation.

5 Joseph Ratzinger, ‘In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, Trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).

6 Ibid., pp. 4-5.

7 Ibid., p. 5.

8 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum, November 18, 1965: AAS 58 (1966) 817-830, no. 12. All English citations from the texts of Vatican II are taken from Walter M. Abbott, S.J., ed. The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966).

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ratzinger, In the Beginning, p. 8.

12 Ibid., p. 14.

13 Ibid., pp. 14-15.

14 For an interesting essay on the relationship between the Hexaemaron and the Enuma Elish written for a popular audience, see Victor Hurowitz, “The Genesis of Genesis: Is the Creation Story Babylonian?” Bible Review 21 (2005): 37-48; 52-53.

15 Ratzinger, In the Beginning, p. 15.

16Dei verbum, no. 12.

17 Ratzinger, In the Beginning, p. 16.

18 Ibid., p. 16.

19Dei verbum, no. 16.


Reverend Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., received his Ph.D. in biology from M.I.T. in 1996 and his S.T.L. from the Dominican House of Studies in 2005. He currently serves as an assistant professor of biology and adjunct professor of theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. His work previously appeared in the December 2003 issue of HPR.


             Foreword to U.M. Lang's  Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer

                                  By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

To the ordinary churchgoer, the two most obvious effects of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council seem to be the disappearance of Latin and the turning of the altars towards the people. Those who read the relevant texts will be astonished to learn that neither is in fact found in the decrees of the Council. The use of the vernacular is certainly permitted, especially for the Liturgy of the Word, but the preceding general rule of the Council text says, 'Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites' (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36.1).

There is nothing in the Council text about turning altars towards the people; that point is raised only in postconciliar instructions. The most important directive is found in paragraph 262 of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, the General Instruction of the new Roman Missal, issued in 1969. That says, 'It is better for the main altar to be constructed away from the wall so that one can easily walk around the altar and celebrate facing the people (versus populum).' The General Instruction of the Missal issued in 2002 retained this text unaltered except for the addition of the subordinate clause, 'which is desirable wherever possible'. This was taken in many quarters as hardening the 1969 text to mean that there was now a general obligation to set up altars facing the people 'wherever possible'.

This interpretation, however, was rejected by the Congregation for Divine Worship on 25 September 2000, when it declared that the word 'expedit' ('is desirable') did not imply an obligation but only made a suggestion. The physical orientation, the Congregation says, must be distinguished from the spiritual. Even if a priest celebrates versus populum, he should always be oriented versus Deum per Iesum Christum (towards God through Jesus Christ). Rites, signs, symbols, and words can never exhaust the inner reality of the mystery of salvation, For this reason the Congregation warns against one-sided and rigid positions in this debate.

This is an important clarification. It sheds light on what is relative in the external symbolic forms of the liturgy and resists the fanaticisms that, unfortunately, have not been uncommon in the controversies of the last forty years. At the same time it highlights the internal direction of liturgical action, which can never be expressed in its totality by external forms. This internal direction is the same for priest and people, towards the Lord-towards the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The Congregation's response should thus make for a new, more relaxed discussion, in which we can search for the best ways of putting into practice the mystery of salvation. The quest is to be achieved, not by condemning one another, but by carefully listening to each other and, even more importantly, listening to the internal guidance of the liturgy itself. The labelling of positions as 'preconciiiar', 'reactionary', and 'conservative', or as 'progressive' and 'alien to the faith' achieves nothing; what is needed is a new mutual openness in the search for the best realisation of the memorial of Christ.

This small book by Uwe Michael Lang, a member of the London Oratory, studies the direction of liturgical prayer from a historical, theological, and pastoral point of view. At a propitious moment, as it seems to me, this book resumes a debate that, despite appearances to the contrary, has never really gone away, not even after the Second Vatican Council.

The Innsbruck liturgist Josef Andreas Jungmann, one of the architects of the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, was from the very beginning resolutely opposed to the polemical catchphrase that previously the priest celebrated 'with his back to the people'; he emphasised that what was at issue was not the priest turning away from the people, but, on the contrary, his facing the same direction as the people. The Liturgy of the Word has the character of proclamation and dialogue, to which address and response can rightly belong. But in the Liturgy of the Eucharist the priest leads the people in prayer and is turned, together with the people, towards the Lord. For this reason, Jungmann argued, the common direction of priest and people is intrinsically fitting and proper to the liturgical action. Louis Bouyer (like Jungmann, one of the Council's leading liturgists) and Klaus Gainber have each in his own way taken up the same question. Despite their great reputations, they were unable to make their voices heard at first, so strong was the tendency to stress the communality of the liturgical celebration and to regard therefore the face-to-face position of priest and people as absolutely necessary.

More recently the atmosphere has become more relaxed so that it is possible to raise the kind of questions asked by Jungmann, Bouyer, and Gamber without at once being suspected of anti-conciliar sentiments. Historical research has made the controversy less partisan, and among the faithful there is an increasing sense of the problems inherent in an arrangement that hardly shows the liturgy to be open to the things that are above and to the world to come.

In this situation, Lang's delightfully objective and wholly unpolemical book is a valuable guide. Without claiming to offer major new insights, he carefully presents the results of recent research and provides the material necessary for making an informed judgment. The book is especially valuable in showing the contribution made by the Church of England to this question and in giving, also, due consideration to the part played by the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century (in which the conversion of John Henry Newman matured). It is from such historical evidence that the author elicits the theological answers that he proposes, and I hope that the book, the work of a young scholar, will help the struggle-necessary in every generation––for the right understanding and worthy celebration of the sacred liturgy.

I wish the book a wide and attentive readership.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Rome, Laetare Sunday 2003

Uwe Michael Lang is a member of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London. he holds an M.A. in Catholic theology from the University of Vienna and a D.Phil in theology from the University of Oxford. His publications include several articles on Patristic subjects and his doctoral thesis, John Philoponus and the Controversies over Chalcedon in the Sixth Century.

The Ministry and Life of Priests  
By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The priest’s function, finally, is very simple:
                  to be a voice for the Word, “He must increase and I must decrease.”

(NOTE: This is a reprint from the August-September 1997 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review)
When the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council set to work on the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, they had already finished major debates on the nature of the episcopacy, and had made important statements on the position of the laity in the Church and on the religious life. 1 It was now time to provide a word of encouragement to priests, who day by day must bear the burden of working in the Lord’’s vineyard. Of course, no merely pious exhortation would be enough: once the bishops had clarified the meaning and theological foundation of their own ministry, the words addressed to the priests, too, would require comparable theological depth. For only in this way could the work of priests be convincingly recognized, and their efforts be encouraged.

But such a message to priests was needed for more reasons than to give proportionate attention to the various “states” in the Church. When the Council Fathers had worked out the special significance of the bishops’ office in relation to the ministry of St. Peter’’s successor, they could count on a wide-ranging consensus in the public opinion of both Church and world, especially within the Christian oikoumene. But it was otherwise when it came to the Catholic concept of the priesthood, the meaning of which was no longer self-evident, even in the consciousness of the Church. To be sure, the crisis over that concept, which would quickly come into the open after the Council, and lead to further crises concerning the very existence of the priesthood and the priestly vocation, was at the moment only in its first stages. One of its causes was an altered approach to life, in which the “sacred” was understood less and less, and the “functional” elevated to become the only valid category. But there were theological roots as well, which gained unexpected nourishment from the new conditions of society. The very exegesis of the New Testament seemed to establish a non-sacral view of all ecclesial tasks, removing all continuity between the sacral functions of the Old Testament and the new ministries of the infant Church. Still less could any connection be discerned with pagan conceptions of the priesthood. The very novelty of Christianity appeared to consist precisely in the de-sacralization of ministries. The servants of the Christian community were not called hiereis (the Greek equivalent of Latin sacerdotes) but presbyteroi, or “elders.” Now although the Protestant origins of modern exegesis were essentially operative in this manner of interpreting the New Testament, nothing could change the evidence that appeared to justify the conclusion: on the contrary, the burning question at the time was whether Luther was right after all, and not the Council of Trent.

Two opposing concepts of priestly ministry stood - and still stand - face to face. On one side, the social-functional view defines priesthood in terms of “service”; a service performed for the community, through carrying out a function of the Church in its social dimension. On the other side, the sacramental-ontological view, without denying the aspect of service, sees priesthood as rooted in the minister’s being itself, and this being, in turn, as determined through a gift bestowed by the Lord through the Church, known as a sacrament. The functional view is also connected with a shift in terminology: expressions like “priest” and “priesthood” with their sacral connotations are avoided, and replaced by the neutral, functional words “minister” and “ministry,” until now hardly used in Catholic theology.
This difference in understanding the nature of the priesthood corresponds, to a certain extent, with a change of emphasis in the definition of the priest’’s role: the classically Catholic centering of the priesthood on the Eucharist (sacerdos—sacrificium), as against the typically Protestant priority given to the Word. Now, a view of the priesthood that places primacy on the Word does not have to be anti-sacramental. The Vatican II Decree on Priests proves the contrary. But the question arises, whether the two different concepts must be mutually exclusive, or whether they might not reciprocally enrich each other, and resolve their own discord from within. This, then, was the question faced by the Second Vatican Council: how far could the classical, post-Tridentine image of the priest be broadened— that is, how far could it satisfy the demands proposed by the Reformation, by critical exegesis, and by the modern attitude to life—without losing its essentials; and, vice versa, how far could the Protestant idea of the “minister” open itself up to the living tradition of the Church, both of East and West; for (likewise, since the Council of Trent) there has been no essential difference between the Catholic and the Orthodox notions of the priesthood.

1. The Nature of the Priestly Ministry

Vatican II did not enter into these problems that were then just beginning to surface. After the great debates on episcopal collegiality, on ecumenism, on religious freedom, and on the issues of the modern world, neither time nor energy were available for the Council Fathers. Since then, the 1971 and 1990 Synods have studied the subject of the priesthood and expanded on the Council’s declarations, while the Pope’s “Holy Thursday Letters” to Priests and the Directory of the Congregation of the Clergy have been applying the theme more concretely to everyday priestly life. And if the conciliar decree does not explicitly take up positions in regard to present-day controversies, it provides the foundation for any further elaboration.

What, then, are the answers to the problems we have described? To put it briefly, the Council teaching cannot be reduced to either one of the alternatives. The decree’’s first definition of the priesthood states that by their consecration priests are ordained for the service of Christ as Teacher, Priest and King; they share in his ministry by virtue of which the Church here on earth is constantly being built up into the People of God, the Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit (no. 1). In the subsequent paragraphs, mention is made of the priest’’s power to offer sacrifice and forgive sins (no. 2). But this special task of the priest is emphatically inserted into a dynamic, historical vision of the Church, in which all the faithful “participate in the mission” of the whole body though “all have not the same function” (cf. Rom. 12:4). To sum up the thinking thus far, we can state that the first chapter of the decree (nos. 2 and 3) heavily underlines the ontological aspect of priestly existence, and thereby emphasizes the power to offer sacrifice. Both elements are again stressed at the beginning of no. 3: “Priests, taken from among the people, and ordained on their behalf in the things that pertain to God for the purpose of offering up gifts and sacrifices for sins (cf. Heb. 5,1), live with them as with their brothers.” In contrast with the Council of Trent, there is a new emphasis on the lived unity and common path of the whole Church, into which the traditional conception of the priesthood has been inserted.

All the more, then, is our attention drawn to the beginning of the second chapter, where the concrete duties of the priest are described: “It is the first task of priests, as co-workers of the bishops, to preach the Gospel of God to all” (no. 4). This seems to affirm clearly the primacy of the word, or the ministry of preaching. The question then arises, what is the relationship between these two statements: a priest is “ordained ..for the purpose of offering up gifts and sacrifices”; and his “first task” (primum..officium) is to “preach the Gospel” (Evangelium evangelizandi)”?

1.1 The Christological Foundation

To find a solution to this problem, we should first ask ourselves, What does it mean to “evangelize”? What really happens when someone does this? And just what is this Gospel? The Council could certainly have referred to the Gospels to establish the primacy of preaching. I have in mind here a short but significant episode from the beginning of Mark. Everyone was seeking out our Lord for his miraculous powers, but he goes off to a remote place to pray (Mark 1:35-39); when he is pressed by “Simon and those who were with him,” our Lord says, “Let us go on to the nearby villages, so that I may preach there also, for this is what I have come out to do” (1:38). Jesus says that the purpose of his coming is to preach the Kingdom of God. Therefore this should also be the defining priority of all his ministers: they come out to proclaim the Kingdom, and that means, to make the living, powerful and ever-present God take first place in our lives. Now, for the correct understanding of this priority, two further insights can be gained from this brief pericope. First, this evangelization is to go hand in hand with a withdrawal into the solitude of personal prayer—such interior recollection appears, in fact, to be a necessary pre-condition for the preaching. Second, the preaching is connected with the “casting out of devils” (1:39): it is a matter not just of speech, but of effective action. And the preaching takes shape in no bright, happy world, but in a world tyrannized by demons, into which it intervenes, to liberate.

But we must take a further step, beyond the brief but meaningful passage of Mark, and take a look over the entire Gospel, for a correct understanding of Jesus’ own priority. He preaches the Kingdom of God, and he does so especially with parables, but also with signs, in which the living presence of the Kingdom draws near to men. Word and sign are inseparable. Whenever the signs are seen merely as wonders, but without meaning, Jesus ceases to perform them. But no more does he allow his evangelizing to be taken for a merely intellectual affair, a matter for discussion alone. His words demand decision; they bring reality. In this sense, his word is “incarnate”: the mutual relation of word and sign expresses a “sacramental” structure. 2  But we must go a step further. Jesus does not convey a knowledge that is independent from his own person, as any teacher or storyteller would do. He is something different from, and more than, a Rabbi. As his preaching unfolds, it becomes ever clearer that his parables refer to himself, that the “Kingdom” and his person belong together, that the Kingdom comes in his person. The decision that he demands is a decision about how one stands toward him, as with Peter, who said, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Ultimately, the message of his preaching about the Kingdom of God turns out to be quite clearly Jesus’ own Paschal mystery, his destiny of death and resurrection. We see this, for example, in the parable of the murderous vine-dressers (Mark 12:1-11). Word and reality are here intertwined in a new way: the parable arouses the anger of his adversaries, who do everything the parable says. They kill the son. This means that the parables would be void of meaning, were it not for the living person of the incarnate Son who has “come out [ex elthon] for this” (Mark 1:38), who “was sent” from the Father (Mark 12:6). The parables would be empty without a confirmation of his word by the Cross and the Resurrection. We now understand that Jesus’ preaching can be called “sacramental” in a deeper sense than we could have seen before. His word contains in itself the reality of the Incarnation and the theme of the Cross and the Resurrection. It is “deed/word” in this very profound sense, instructing the Church in the mutual dependence of preaching and the Eucharist, and in the mutual dependence, as well, of preaching and an authentic, living witness.

We take yet another step forward with the Paschal vision St. John presents us in his Gospel. Peter had said that Jesus is the Christ. John now adds that Jesus Christ is the Logos. He himself is the eternal Word of the Father, who is with God and who is God (John 1:1). In him, this Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In Christian preaching, one is not dealing with words, but with the Word. “When we speak of the ministry of the word of God, the inter-Trinitarian relation is also understood.” 3 Yet at the same time, “this ministry participates in the function of the Incarnation.” 4 It has rightly been pointed out that the fundamental difference between the preaching of Jesus and the lessons of the Rabbis consists precisely in the fact that the “I” of Jesus—that is, he himself—is at the center of his message. 5 But we must also remember that Jesus himself understood that what especially characterized his speaking, was that he was not speaking “in his own name” (cf. John 5:43 & 7:16). His “I” is totally open to the “Thou” of the Father; it does not remain in itself, but takes us inside the very life of the Trinity. This means that the Christian preacher will not speak about himself, but will become Christ’s own voice, by making way for the Logos, and leading, through communion with the Man Jesus, to communion with the living God.
This brings us back to the Vatican II Decree on the Priesthood. It emphasizes a common characteristic found in all forms of preaching. The priest should never teach his own wisdom. What always matters is the word of God that impels towards truth and holiness (no. 4). With St. Paul as a model, the ministry of the word demands that the priest divest himself profoundly of his own self: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

I would like to recall now an episode from the early days of Opus Dei, which illustrates the point. A young woman had the opportunity to listen for the first time to a talk given by Fr. Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. She was very curious to hear a famous preacher. But after participating in a Mass he celebrated, she no longer wanted to listen to a human orator. She recounted later that from that moment on, her only interest was to discover the word and will of God.

The ministry of the word requires that the priest share in the kenosis of Christ, in his “increasing and decreasing.” The fact that the priest does not speak about himself, but bears the message of another, certainly does not mean that he is not personally involved, but precisely the opposite: it is a giving-away-of-the-self in Christ that takes up the path of his Easter mystery, and leads to a true finding-of-the-self, and communion with him who is the Word of God in person. This Paschal structure of the “not-self” that turns out to be the “true self” after all, shows, in the last analysis, that the ministry of the Word reaches beyond all “functions” to penetrate the priest’s very being, and presupposes that the priesthood is a sacrament.

1.2 Development in Tradition (St. Augustine)

Since we have now reached the central point of our discussion, I would like to illustrate it with two series of images taken from the works of St. Augustine. These images, which are taken from his biblical commentaries, have also had an important influence on the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church.
First of all, the priest is described as servus Dei or servus Christi. 6 This expression, “the servant of Christ,” which is taken from the ecclesiastical language of his time, has a background in the Christological hymn of the Letter to the Philippians (2:5-11): Christ, the Son who is equal to God, took on the condition of a servant, and became a slave for us. Here we must leave to one side Augustine’s profound theology on freedom and service as developed in the passage. What is pertinent to our theme is that “servant” is a relational concept. One is a servant only in relation to another. If the priest is defined as a servant of Jesus Christ, this means that his existence is essentially determined as relational. The essence of his ministry consists in his having been ordained for the service of the Lord, and this reaches into his very own being. He is a servant of Christ in order to be from him, through him, and with him, a servant of men. His being in relation to Christ is not opposed to his being ordained for the service of the community (of the Church); rather, it is the foundation that alone gives depth to that service. Being related to Christ means to be taken up into his existence as servant, and staying with him, at the service of the “body,” that is, the Church. Precisely because the priest belongs to Christ, he belongs, in a thoroughly radical sense, to men. Otherwise, he would be unable to dedicate himself profoundly and absolutely to them. This means, in turn, that the ontological concept of the priesthood, which affects the priest’s being, is not opposed to his important function as a minister to the community. In fact, the ontological aspect creates a service too radical to be conceived in any merely profane terms.

This image of “servant” is linked with the image of the “indelible character,” which has become part of the patrimony of the Church’s faith. In the language of late antiquity, the word “character” designated the permanent mark of ownership that was impressed upon an object, an animal, or even a person. The property was assigned irrevocably and “called to its owner” (clamat ad dominum). One could say that “character” signifies a “belonging” impressed on the very being of an object. To this extent, then, character expresses that “being in relation,” and “being in reference to” another, as we have mentioned. And such “belonging” is not simply at one’’s own disposal, to acquire or use as one pleases. The initiative comes from the owner, from Christ. This makes the sacramental nature obvious: I cannot simply “declare” that I belong to our Lord. He must first appropriate me as his own. Only then can I enter into the state of belonging, which I can accept, and try to live, as my own. The word “character” describes the ontological nature of the service to Christ that lies in the priesthood, while illustrating what is meant by sacramentality. Only from this perspective can we understand why St. Augustine describes the character—both functionally and ontologically—as “the right of giving” (ius dandi), the necessary precondition for valid administration of the sacraments. 7 To belong to our Lord, who has become a servant, is to belong to those who are his. This means that now the servant can, under the sacred sign, give what he could never give on his own. In fact, he can give the Holy Spirit, absolve from sins, make present the sacrifice of Christ, and Christ himself in his sacred Body and Blood, which are all rights reserved to God, which no man can acquire by himself or by delegation from any community. So if “character” is an expression of community service, it shows, on the one hand, that it is ultimately always our Lord who is acting, and on the other hand, that he nevertheless acts in the visible Church by means of men. Character thus guarantees the “validity” of a sacrament, even in the case of an unworthy servant, but at the same time stands in judgment on the servant, and obliges him to live the sacrament.

We can briefly touch on a second series of images St. Augustine used in his attempts to explain the nature of priestly service to himself and his faithful. They arose from his meditation on John the Baptist, whom he saw as prefiguring the priesthood. 8 Augustine points out that in the New Testament John is described, with an expression taken from Isaiah, as a “voice,” whereas Christ, in St. John’s Gospel, is called “the Word.” The relationship between “voice” (vox) and ““word”” (verbum) helps to clarify the relationship between Christ and the priest. A word exists in the heart before it is grasped by someone else’’s sense of hearing. Through the conveyance of the voice, it enters into another’’s perception, and is then present in the other person’s heart, without being lost by the one who speaks the word. The audible sound— that is, the voice—which bears the word from one person to another (or to others), passes away, but the word remains. The priest’’s function, finally, is very simple: to be a voice for the Word: “He must increase and I must decrease.” The only purpose of the voice is to transmit the word, and then disappear. Here we see both the sublimity and the humility of the priesthood. Like John the Baptist, the priest is only a precursor, a servant and minister of the Word. The focus is not on himself but on the Other. Yet he is vox, voice, with all his being. It is his mission to become a voice for the word. It is precisely in this radical relatedness to another that he takes part in the grandeur of the Baptist’’s mission, in the mission of the Logos himself. It is also in this context that Augustine calls the priest the friend of the bridegroom (John 3:29) who does not take the bride, but shares, as a friend, in the joy of the wedding: the Lord has made the servant into a friend (John 15:15), who now belongs to his household, and remains in his house, no longer as a servant, but as a free man (Gal. 4:7; 4:21-5:1). 9

2. Christology and Ecclesiology: The Ecclesial Character of the Priesthood

Up to this point, we have been speaking about the Christological character of the priesthood, which always has a Trinitarian character as well, because the Son, by nature, comes from the Father and returns to him. He communicates himself in the Holy Spirit, who is love and giving personified. But the conciliar decree rightly goes a step further in emphasizing the ecclesial character of the priesthood, which is inseparable from its Christological-Trinitarian foundation. The Incarnation of the Word signifies that God does not simply wish to come, by way of the Spirit, directly to the spirit of man, but rather, that he seeks man by means of the material world, and wants to move man precisely as a social and historical being. God chooses to come to us through other human beings. God has come to us in such a way that we find our way to one another through him, and starting from him. The Incarnation thus brings with it a faith that is both communal and historical. The way “through the body” signifies that the reality of time and human sociability become factors in man’s relationship to God, which in turn are based on the antecedent relationship of God to men. Consequently, Christology and ecclesiology are inseparable: God’s action creates the “people of God,” and it is through Christ that the “people of God” becomes the “body of Christ,” according to St. Paul’s profound interpretation, in the Letter to the Galatians, of the promise made to Abraham. As Paul knew from the Old Testament, this promise is made “to the seed” of Abraham, that is, not to many, but to a single one. The action of God therefore tends to make us, the many, become not simply “one thing,” but “One,” in bodily communion with Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16 ff., 28).
Now it is from this profoundly ecclesiological aspect of Christology that the Council derives the world-historical dynamic of the Christ-event, to whose service priests are ordained. The ultimate goal, for all of us, is to become happy. But happiness is only to be found in togetherness, and togetherness is only to be found in the infinitude of love. Happiness is found only in the opening of self to the divine; that is, in divinization. In this sense the Council says, with Augustine, that the goal of history is for humanity to become love, and that means adoration, living worship, the very City of God (civitas Dei); thus the deepest longing of creation will be realized: “that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28; Presbyterorum ordinis no. 2, ll. 44-45; St. Augustine, De civitate Dei 10, 6). Only in this broad perspective can we really understand what worship is, or what the sacraments are.

Now this vision, which directs our attention on a large scale, and to ultimate questions, can also lead us back to very concrete matters. As we have seen, Christian faith is never purely spiritual and interior, and can never be a purely subjective or private-personal relationship to Christ and his word. Rather, it is a concrete, ecclesial reality. For this reason the Council, perhaps forcing the matter a bit, underlines the bond priests have with their bishop. They represent him, act in his name, and receive their mission from him. The great Christological obedience, which reverses Adam’’s disobedience, is concretized in ecclesial obedience, which, for the priest, means obedience to his own bishop. Certainly the Council could have insisted more strongly that there must first be a common obedience of all to the Word of God and his example, as presented in the living tradition of the Church. This common bond of obedience is also common freedom: it offers protection against arbitrariness, and guarantees the authentically Christological character of ecclesial obedience. Ecclesial obedience is not positivistic; it is not simply paid to a merely formal authority, but rather to someone who obeys on his own part, too, and personifies the obedient Christ. And yet such obedience does not, of course, depend on the virtue and holiness of the office-holder, precisely because it refers to the objectivity of faith, a gift from our Lord that transcends all subjectivity. In this sense, obedience to one’’s bishop always transcends the local Church: it is a catholic obedience. The bishop is obeyed because he represents the universal Church in this specific place. And such obedience also points beyond the current moment, since it is directed to the totality of the history of the faith. It is based on all that has grown to maturity in the communio sanctorum, and thus opens itself up to the future, in which God will be all in all, and we will all be one. From this point of view, the demand of obedience makes a very serious demand on the one who holds authority. This does not mean, again, that obedience is conditional. It is very concrete. I do not obey a Jesus that I or some others have constructed out of Sacred Scripture; in that case, I would only be obeying my own favorite notions: by adoring the image of Jesus I have invented, I would be adoring myself. No! To obey Christ means to obey his body, to obey him in his body.

Ever since the Letter to the Philippians, Jesus’ obedience, understood as victory over the disobedience of Adam, has been at the center of the history of salvation. In the priest’’s life, this obedience should be incarnated in obedience to the Church’’s authority, and concretely, that means to the bishop. Only then is there a real rejection of the idolatry of self. Only then will the Adam within us be overcome, and the new humanity formed. Today, when emancipation is considered as the essence of redemption, and freedom is presented as the right for me to do everything I want to do, and nothing I don’’t want to do, the very concept of obedience has, so to speak, been anathematized. It has been eliminated not only from our vocabulary, but also from our thinking. But this erroneous notion of freedom makes unity and love impossible. It makes man a slave. A rightly understood obedience must be rehabilitated, and assume once more its true value at the center of Christian and priestly spirituality.

3. Spiritual Applications

Christology, when approached from a pneumatological and Trinitarian standpoint and thus taken in an ecclesial sense, naturally leads to spirituality, to the way faith is lived in practice. Since the Constitution on the Church had already provided the dogmatic basis, the Council’’s decree on priestly life and ministry could attend directly to this aspect, and give very concrete instruction on priestly spirituality. I would like to develop one aspect of this. In no. 14 the decree deals with the difficult problem faced by the priest who often finds himself torn between a great number of very different tasks. How can he preserve the interior unity of his life? Given the diminishing number of priests, this problem threatens to become the principal crisis in priestly life. A pastor today, with three or four parishes at his charge, will have to be constantly on the move. Missionaries are very familiar with this situation, but it is beginning to become something like a norm even in countries which have been Christian for centuries. The priest has to try to guarantee the celebration of the sacraments in the communities. He is harried by administrative tasks. He is challenged by issues of every kind, together with the personal problems of so many individuals for whom he often cannot find the time. Pulled in all directions by these activities, the priest feels empty and less and less able to find time for the recollection which could provide him with fresh energy and inspiration. “Scattered” on the outside and “empty” on the inside, the priest can lose the joy of his vocation and end up regarding it as a burden too heavy to endure. The only solution is to flee.

The Council offers three ways to overcome this situation. They are based on intimate communion with Christ, whose food was to do the will of the Father (John 4:34). The first one serves as a foundation: the priest needs to develop a living awareness of his ontological union with Christ, which is then expressed in his activity: Everything I do, I do in communion with him. Precisely in doing it, I am with him. No matter how multiple, or even contradictory my activities may seem to others, they still constitute a single vocation: it is all being together with Christ, acting as an instrument in communion with him.
A second indication follows from the first. Priestly asceticism should not be placed alongside pastoral action as if it were an additional burden, just one more assignment added to an already overwhelming day. It is precisely in action that I learn to overcome myself, to lose and give my life. In disappointments and failure I learn renunciation, acceptance of suffering and detachment from self. With the joy of success I learn gratitude. In the celebration of the sacraments, I inwardly benefit. In fact, there is no external work I perform in which I do not speak with Christ, and with the triune God through Christ. Thus I pray with others and for others. This askesis of service, or my ministry itself as the true asceticism of my life, is without any doubt a very important idea, but it requires constant, conscious exercise, an interior ordering of priestly action that comes from being a priest.

But there is still a third indispensable element. Even if I strive to approach service as asceticism and see sacramental action as a personal encounter with Christ, there have to be some moments when I can take time out, and “catch my breath” from activity, to ensure this interior orientation. The conciliar decree says that priests will achieve this only by penetrating deeply, with their own lives, into the mystery of Christ. In this connection, it is very moving to read what St. Charles Borromeo says, based on his own experience: If he wishes to attain a truly priestly life, a priest must employ the appropriate means, that is: fasting, prayer, and the avoidance both of bad company and of harmful and dangerous familiarity. “If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. . . . Stay quiet with God.. . . Are you in charge of the souls of the parish? If so, do not neglect your own soul, do not give yourself to others so completely that you have nothing left for yourself. You have to be mindful of your people without becoming forgetful of yourself. . . . When you administer the sacraments, meditate on what you are doing. When you celebrate Mass, meditate on the sacrifice you are offering. When you pray the office, meditate on the words you are saying and the Lord to whom you are speaking. When you take care of your people, meditate on whose blood has washed them clean. . . .” 10 The verb “meditate,” repeated four times, shows the importance, for this great pastor of souls, of the deepening of our inner life as a basis for action. And we know very well how much Charles Borromeo gave himself to his people. He died at 46, worn out by his dedication to his ministry. This man who was truly consumed for Christ, and through him, for his fellow men, teaches us that such dedication is impossible without the regimen—and refuge—of an authentic, faithful interiority. This is a lesson we must learn, over and over again.
In recent decades, having interior life has been widely mistrusted as “escapism,” as an excessive search for privacy. Yet ministry without spirituality, without interior life, leads to empty activism. Not a few priests, who set out on their mission with great idealism, fail in the end because of a mistrust for spirituality. To have time for God, to face him personally and intimately, is a pastoral priority of equal or even greater importance than all the other priorities. It is not an added duty, but the soul’’s very breath, without which we would be “out of breath”—the spiritual breath, or “breathing” (spiritus) of the Holy Spirit within us. Although there are other important and appropriate ways to recuperate spiritually, the fundamental way to recover from activity and to learn to love it again, is the interior search for the face of God, which always restores our joy in God. One of the greatest, and most humble, parish priests of our century, Fr. Didimo Mantiero (1912-1992) from Bassano del Grappa [Italy], wrote in his spiritual diary: “Converts have always been made through the prayer and sacrifice of unknown faithful. Christ won souls, not by the force of his marvelous words, but by the power of his constant prayer. He preached by day, but at night he prayed.” 11 Souls, that is, living men and women, cannot be drawn to God simply by convincing arguments or discussions. They have to be won through prayer—by God, and for God. Christian interior life is also the most important pastoral activity. In our pastoral plans this point ought to be given much greater importance. We must learn, again and again, that we need less discussion—and more prayer.

A Look Ahead: The Unity of Old and New Testaments in Christ

In conclusion, I would like to turn once more to the problem I sketched out in the introduction. What does the New Testament tell us about the priesthood of the Church? Does such a thing really exist? Or were the Reformers right when they accused the Church of betraying the newness of Christianity, of nullifying the change Christ brought, by turning the elder (presbyter) back into a priest (sacerdos)? Shouldn’t the Church have remained strictly faithful to the function of the elder without any sacralization or sacramentalization? We cannot get the correct answer merely by studying the terms “priest” (=presbyter) and “hiereus” (=sacerdos), terms originally different but later united. One has to go deeper, since the whole question of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments is at stake. Does the New Testament constitute what is essentially a break with the past or, rather, a fulfillment in which the old continues, but is completely transformed and, really, restored in the new? Is grace opposed to the law, or is there an inner connection between the two?

Historically, it should be pointed out first of all, that in the year 70 A.D. the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, and with it disappeared the whole sector of sacrifice and priesthood that had been, in certain respects, at the heart of the “law.” Judaism sought to preserve what had been lost by applying the prescription of the holiness of the Temple to the life of the Jewish people in general. 12 And it anchored the lost heritage of the Temple in its spirituality, through the prayerful hope of re-establishing worship in Jerusalem. The synagogue, which is above all a gathering place for prayer, for preaching and hearing the word, is but a fragment, living in expectation of something much bigger. A strict Reformation interpretation of Christian ministry and worship reduces Christianity to the image of the synagogue, that is, to meeting, word and prayer. The historicist reading of the uniqueness of Christ’’s sacrifice banishes sacrifice and cult to the past, and excludes from the present both priesthood and sacrifice. Meanwhile, it is being increasingly observed, even by those within Churches that began at the Reformation, that this reading misses the grandeur and depth of the New Testament event. And it could even imply that the Old Testament was not, in fact, fulfilled.

In Christ’s resurrection, however, the Temple is reconstructed by God’s own power (John 2:19). Christ, the living Temple, is himself the new sacrifice, which continues today in the body of Christ, the Church. Coming from this sacrifice, and oriented toward it, we have the true, priestly ministry of the new worship, in which all the “figures” have been fulfilled.

We must therefore reject the view that the Church’s worship and priesthood entails a clean break with the history of pre-Christian salvation, a view that consequently denies any continuity from the priesthood of Old Testament to the priesthood of the New. For in this view, the New Testament would not be a fulfillment of the Old Covenant but would stand in opposition to it. This would effectively destroy the internal unity of the history of salvation. By means of the sacrifice of Christ and its acceptance in the Resurrection, the entire heritage of worship and priesthood of the Old Covenant is handed over to the Church. The fullness of the Christian “Yes” counters any attempt to reduce the Church to the synagogue. This is the only way to understand fully, and in depth, the ministry of the Apostolic succession. In this way we should not feel ashamed, or make any excuses for affirming, that, Yes, the priesthood of the Church continues and renews the priesthood of the Old Testament, which finds its true fulfillment precisely in this radical and transforming newness.

This position is important even for relations between Christianity and other world religions. Although Christianity is a new beginning—the greatest and most radically new reality that has come from God—it does not negate the efforts of other religions, in their Advent-like gestures toward the meaning of man’s existence; however much distorted and deformed, their search is not in vain.

This concept of the priesthood in no way implies a devaluation of the common priesthood of the baptized. Once again, it is Augustine who has beautifully expressed this by calling all the faithful “servants of God,” while he calls priests “servants of the servants,” thus designating the faithful as their masters. 13 The priesthood of the New Testament means following in the footsteps of our Lord, who washes the feet of his disciples: his greatness cannot subsist except in humility. Greatness and self-abasement have been intertwined, ever since Christ—who is the greatest—became the least; ever since the one who is first, took the last place. To be a priest means to enter into this communion of self-abasement, in order to share in the universal glory of the redemption.


1 Lecture given on October 24, 1995, during the International Symposium organized by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of Presbyterorum Ordinis.
2 This idea of mutual relationship has been developed in my little book, Evangelium-Katechese-Katechismus (Munich, 1995) 35-43.
3 F. Genn, Trinitäät und Amt nach Augustinus, (Einsiedeln, 1986) 181.
4 Ibid., 183.
5 Cf. Robert Aron, Jesus of Nazareth: the Hidden Years (trans. fr. French; London, 1962) 170-1; J. Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1993) 30.
6 Cf. Genn, op .cit., (in note 3 above) 101-123; on the general use of the expression Servus Dei at the time of St. Augustine, see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Oxford, 1967) 132-7.
7 Genn, op. cit., 34, 63ff.; on the ancient concept of character (corresponding to the Greek stigma, sphragis) cf. H. Schlier, Die Brief an die Galater (Gööttingen, 1962) 284, for additional bibliography.
8 Sermo 293, 1-3 (Patrologia Latina [ed. Migne] vol. 38, 1327ff.)
9 Genn, op. cit., 139 ff.
10 Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis (Milan, 1599) 1177ff.; Reading of the Liturgy of the Hours for November 4.
11 L. Grygiel, La “Dieci” di Don Didimo Mantiero (Ed. San Paolo, 1995) 54.
12 Cf. Neusner, op.cit., (in note 5 above) e.g. 114ff.
13 Genn, op.cit., 117ff.


His Eminence, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Regensburg before he was appointed Archbishop of Munich, Germany in the late  1970s. After serving just a few years in the city of Munich, he was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican, a position which he has held with distinction ever since. This lecture was given by him in October 1995 and was translated into English by Edward G. Maristany and Gerald Malsbary.