Orphaned when he was a young adult, the late Pope John Paul II had no family member to offer a portrait of his childhood and youth. In contrast, this book offers a unique glimpse of Joseph Ratzinger, the man who was to become Pope Benedict XVI. The oral reminiscences of his older brother Georg, who also became a priest, it offers a fascinating insight into the childhood and youthful influences which have shaped the Holy Father’s personality.
Mgr Ratzinger’s book is the result of five long sessions with his editor, Michael Hesemann, whose own contributions to the book are italicized passages linking the narrative and providing further explanations of episodes that his interviewee alludes to in passing. Thus it is a mixture of the conversational tone of personal memories and editorial insertions that provide the context.
In his introduction, Hesemann suggests that the Pope’s family “can serve as an example to us especially who live in a time in which more and more marriages are failing and families are being torn apart.” The Ratzinger family was exceptionally close; in old age the parents came to live with their younger son, Joseph, and the brothers’ sister, Maria, devoted her life to her youngest brother and the running of his household until her own death in 1991. Their father’s advertisement for a wife in a local Bavarian church newspaper when, aged 43 and with a secure income in the police force, he felt able to afford to marry, is now well-known (although his two sons did not learn of it until much later in life). He asked for a good cook, seamstress and someone skilled in household management. His wife, who had worked as a maid and a cook, proved a wise choice. Mgr Ratzinger describes her as “a very splendid wife”, a keen gardener, knitter and tailor (she made all their clothes) and an excellent cook; after 80 years he still recalls with relish her Bavarian dumplings and apple strudels.
Their father was strict, although he played the zither within the family circle and passed on his musical ability to Georg. Their mother expertly managed the modest policeman’s salary in creating a warm home. The family prayed together every evening, visited local shrines and pilgrim sites and the sons grew up steeped in the local Catholic practices and piety of their Bavarian homeland. According to Georg, Joseph received his love of animals and nature from his mother and his analytical mind from his father. He still has a little crib from his childhood, now set up every Christmas in the papal apartments.
Mgr Ratzinger does not think it unusual for the time that two brothers from the same family should become priests; he cites several other local examples and remarks that “the lack of the traditional piety in many families is also a reason why there are too few priestly vocations today.” Asked if there was any discord in the family, he replies that any disputes were resolved through prayer – and Confession once a month. “The Mother of God was always with us in our house” he remarks. As children the brothers enjoyed playing at being priests and Georg was certain from a young age that he wanted to join the priesthood, going to the junior archdiocesan seminary aged 12. Given the brothers’ closeness – the Pope has written in a brief foreword to the book that “from the beginning of my life, my brother has always been for me not only a companion, but also a trustworthy guide...with the clarity and determination of his decisions” – it seemed natural that the younger brother should join him at the same age. At first Joseph, bookish, clever, shy and hating sports, found sleeping and studying with many other boys very difficult; Georg was evidently more gregarious and socially confident. The Pope has admitted in his own reminiscences, Milestones, that this communal life was good for him; otherwise he might have become something of a loner.
It is no secret that the boys’ father loathed the rise of the Nazi Party, though both parents were discreet in front of the children so that nothing dangerous would be repeated outside the home. The father even purchased an old farmhouse near Traunstein several years before his retirement, so as to have a secluded place to retreat to as soon as it became financially possible. The family moved there in 1937 when Joseph was 10. The war interrupted this close family life for a while. The seminary was closed, both brothers were conscripted unwillingly into army service and Georg was later wounded in Italy. Yet amazingly, both survived the war while many of their classmates and fellow seminarians were killed. Georg speaks of “our conviction that God had plans for us” – a remark that has particular application to his brother.
The later chapters of the book, which deal briefly with Joseph Ratzinger’s rise in academic, theological circles, his professorial appointments, becoming archbishop of Munich, then a cardinal, and called to Rome to run the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by John Paul II, are already in the public sphere and are not as interesting as the early, more intimate chapters. Several childhood photos are included; one, a formal studio photograph, shows a solemn four-year-old Joseph (probably taken at the time he wept over a teddy he had seen in a shop window) clasping a ball, alongside his brother and sister.
Mgr Ratizinger describes the family’s sense of loss when first their father died in 1959, and then their mother in 1963. In Milestones his brother observed that he knew of “no more convincing proof for the faith than precisely the pure and unalloyed humanity that the faith allowed to mature in my parents...” Tellingly, the children decided to move their parents’ grave in 1974 from Traunstein to Regensburg, where Georg was established as choirmaster and conductor of the Cathedral choir and Joseph had taken up a professorial appointment, so that the family could be together. Georg also admits he went to bed “rather depressed” and refused to answer the phone, on hearing of his brother’s election as Pope, fearing this would curtail their closeness. It hasn’t. They still spend their holidays together and Georg has rooms set aside for him at Castel Gandolfo. The book is an affectionate fraternal portrait, well worth reading for the glimpses it provides of his brother’s upbringing within the close-knit family circle in Bavaria.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in theUK.
My Brother the Pope, by Georg Ratzinger and Michael Hesemann. Published by Gracewing (UK) £16. 99. Ignatius Press (USA), $24.95. Available at Amazon