The Ratzinger Family Secret

Historian Discusses His Book-Interview With Georg

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By Jesús Colina

ROME, JULY 26, 2011 (Zenit.org).- There is still much to be learned about the history and soul of Joseph Ratzinger. And only one person has the key to these intimacies: his brother, Georg.

Soon, much of this will be revealed in the book "Mein Bruder, der Papst" (My Brother, the Pope), an interview with Monsignor Georg Ratzinger given to Michael Hesemann.

The elder Ratzinger spoke with the historian in Regensburg, and their conversation fills 256 pages. It will be published complete with family photographs in Munich by Herbig in September, just before the Holy Father's trip to his native land.

ZENIT spoke with Hesemann about the interview.

ZENIT: Do you think this book will help to better understand Joseph Ratzinger's vocation?

Hesemann: Indeed this is the intention of the book, which was written on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the priestly ordination of His Holiness, the Pope, and his brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger. The book shows how his incredible and completely unintended "career" followed a kind of hidden plan, which you can only call Divine Providence. When I visited the Emanuel School of Mission in Altoetting, the Marian sanctuary that was a central point in Joseph Ratzinger's early life, I heard their slogan: "Give all, get more." And this is exactly the principle followed by him: He always gave everything, he tried to serve the Lord with all his potential, and received much more than he ever imagined or even wanted.

ZENIT: Are there any revelations about Joseph Ratzinger's life? And Georg Ratzinger's?

Hesemann: Yes, of course. In this book, you will learn the most intimate details about their family life. And once again we have a slogan that describes it all: "A family that prays together, stays together." The Ratzinger family became a kind of stronghold against all the tides of those stormy times, including the brutality of the Nazi Regime and the horrors of the war, and it became strong because of its strong piety and intense religious life. Especially today, in a time when so many families are torn into pieces by family problems and divorces, the Ratzingers might serve as a role model for a happy family life. Their secret was to be a family under God, to turn their family into a basic cell of the Church itself. If there were more families like them, we would not have a lack of vocations!

ZENIT: What were the surprises from your conversations with the Pope's brother?

Hesemann: There were many surprises, but the biggest one was how straight but -- at the same time, unintended -- was the path that led Benedict to the See of St. Peter. The most important day in his life was his consecration as a priest on June 29, 1951, when he felt how much more he could give to the people when he allows the Holy Spirit to work through him. He was so happy when he was just a small chaplain in a Munich parish! But then, because of his unique intellectual brilliance, he was pushed to become a professor of theology, and he enjoyed teaching. He did not want to become a bishop, others had to encourage him, after Pope Paul VI made him the new archbishop of Munich. When John Paul II called him to Rome, he found more than enough reasons to stay in Bavaria, and once again someone else, this time the Pope, had to drag him: "Munich is important, but Rome is more important."

Eventually he dreamed of retiring, spending more time with his brother and writing some books -- when, he was elected Pope. This indeed reminded me of St. Peter and the words of Our Lord: "... and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish" (John 21:18). This was, of course, a prophecy, describing the martyrdom of the Prince of the Apostles. But it very well describes what happened to Joseph Ratzinger. But still, if you follow his life, "somebody" prepared him for the Petrine Ministry from the very beginning. It's all the work of God!

But another surprise was how unconditionally this family opposed the Nazis from the very beginning. The boys' father, Joseph Ratzinger Sr., was a regular reader, probably even subscriber, of the most radical Catholic anti-Nazi publication, "Der gerade Weg" (The Straight Path), whose editor, Fritz Michael Gerlich, was one of the first Catholic martyrs of Nazi Germany. The Ratzinger father was a police commander of a small town, Tittmoning, and he got into serious trouble even before the Nazi takeover, because he shut down Nazi meetings and confronted the Nazi SA several times. Eventually he was forced to step down from the career ladder and continue his service in a small village, Aschau, instead. Georg's and Joseph's entry into the seminary, their decision to become Catholic priests, at that time was an open rejection of the Nazis who vigorously terrorized the Church. They suffered mockery and discrimination because of this decision. And still they followed their conscience. The Ratzingers' father, who only had a meager pension at that time, refused all financial advantages of a membership in the Nazi party and even the teenage Joseph Ratzinger managed to avoid participation in the Hitler Youth, even when it was mandatory by German law to enter this organization. He just did not go and when he was forced to become a soldier, he even deserted and only a miracle protected him from being caught at a time when deserters were hung.

ZENIT: What is the role of music in Georg's life? And in Joseph's life?

Hesemann: Music always played an important role in the life of the Ratzinger family. Their father not only sang in the boys choir of his home parish, but also played the zither, an instrument popular in Bavarian folk music. Their mother once served as a housekeeper for a conductor and came in contact with classical music, too, at a rather young age. So when Georg discovered his huge musical talent, he was encouraged by his parents. He was fascinated by a man who owned a harmonium, so his father bought one and he played it so well that when he was only 10 years old, his parish priest asked him to play it during the Holy Mass for schoolchildren on weekdays. Joseph shared this love for music and had musical teachers on both the harmonium and the piano, in his young years and still, even as Pope, plays the piano when his time allows. He loves classical music, especially Mozart, after the Ratzinger boys managed to get to the Salzburg festival once and listened to some important concerts. When George Ratzinger visits his brother nowadays, the Holy Father regularly asks him to play the piano for him, which he enjoys so much.

ZENIT: Can you describe Georg Ratzinger's soul?

Hesemann: Honestly, I enjoyed every meeting with him. He has a heart of gold. I've rarely met a man who is so humble, so friendly and so warm-hearted as him. At the same time I was impressed by his good memory, which he obviously shares with his brother. He is a great and wonderful man and certainly not just "the brother of the Pope," since he had an impressive career of his own, as director and conductor of the world-famous "Regensburger Domspatzen," the cathedral boys choir, which toured in Japan, the U.S. and many other parts of the world. He is also a gifted composer. But first of all, he is a delightful gentleman and priest with a big heart, a deep-rooted faith in God and a good and healthy sense of humor.