Papa Ratzinger at eighty

On April 16, 2005, the staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith hosted a small party for the congregation’s prefect, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Cardinal Ratzinger turned seventy-eight that day; the conclave to choose a new pope would be sealed on April 18; so a combination birthday/bon voyage party seemed in order. It was, some of those present told me, an emotional moment; Cardinal Ratzinger’s way of handling his office had won him the intense loyalty of his subordinates and more than a few of them wanted to see him elected pope.

But if there was any wish farthest from Joseph Ratzinger’s mind as he marked his seventy-eighth birthday, it was that he might spend future birthdays in Rome. He and his older brother Georg, a priest and distinguished musician, had acquired a small property in their native Bavaria where they could keep house together. The cardinal had every intention of offering his resignation as prefect of CDF to the new pope, and every hope that John Paul II’s successor would do what John Paul had three times refused to do — accept that resignation.

The conclave had other ideas, of course. So Joseph Ratzinger will indeed spend his eightieth birthday in Rome, as Pope Benedict XVI.

When he stepped out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s on April 19, 2005, to meet and bless “the city and the world” according to the ancient tradition, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the new pontiff, with whom I had been in conversation since 1988 and for whom I felt gratitude, affection, and respect: one doesn’t wish impossible jobs on those one admires. But somebody has to do the impossible job of the papacy, and, on further reflection, I felt rather happy for Joseph Ratzinger, the man. His election as pope had, I thought, freed him to be himself. No longer would he stand in the giant shadow of John Paul the Great; no longer would he be confined to a disciplinary role. The world could now see, unfiltered, the man whom I had come to know over seventeen years: a Christian gentleman of remarkable intelligence, genuine modesty, spiritual depth — and good humor.

Some of that does, indeed, seem to have happened. While too much of the world media still has its Ratzingerian default positions set on “enforcer,” a lot of people have discovered that Joseph Ratzinger is a master catechist, able to distill the most difficult points of Christian doctrine into language and imagery that can be grasped by anyone. That, I am convinced, is why the crowds at Pope Benedict’s general audiences continue to be the largest in history: tired of the soul-withering allures of secularism and the thin gruel of “spirituality,” people are coming to be fed solid food, food for the journey, food that nourishes mind and spirit.

Thoughtful observers have also figured out that Joseph Ratzinger, by reason of his personal gifts and his office, can do what no president, prime minister, king, queen, chancellor, mullah, or secretary-general can do: put the really urgent questions on the global agenda in a way that can’t be ignored. While I wish that some of my journalistic friends would honor the Pope’s eightieth birthday by repeating, a few thousand times, “The Pope did not make a gaffe at Regensburg,” others have already figured that out: the September 2006 Regensburg Lecture put two grave problems on the world agenda — the danger of irrational faith, and the danger of a loss of faith in reason — in a way that no other world figure could have managed. If the later twenty-first century finds a way to engage genuine interreligious dialogue through a rediscovery of the arts of reason, the seeds for that flowering will be seen to have been planted in Regensburg.

Prior to his election as pope, Joseph Ratzinger worried that he was not a man of “governance, ”and the effects of his governance on the Church remain to be seen. That he has established himself as a master teacher for the world, as he enters his ninth decade, no one can now doubt.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”