Pope Benedict XVI prays with his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger in his private chapel at the Vatican April 14. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters

Pope’s early years marked by brotherly faith and love

  • April 24, 2012

ROME - With the papal birthday and anniversary last week, attention in Rome was understandably focused on reviewing the seven-year pontificate of Benedict XVI. I had the unexpected pleasure though of reading about the other end of the Holy Father’s life — the early years of his Bavarian youth.

Last year an interview book was published by Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, the pope’s older brother. They were ordained priests together in 1951 and have enjoyed a close relationship through the years. After his election as Pope, the younger brother, Joseph, was not able to travel to Germany to spend time with Georg, so now the monsignor comes several times a year to Rome to spend time with his little brother, the Pope. They had originally planned to retire together to their home in Regensburg, but the events of April 19, 2005, permanently altered that plan.

I picked up Msgr. Georg’s book, My Brother, The Pope, thinking that I might benefit from his insights into Benedict’s papacy. There is little of that, as the book only deals in a short final chapter with events post-2005. Instead, I found myself delighted to listen to the old priest, long time distinguished director of the cathedral choir in Regensburg, narrate with affecting simplicity the story of two priestly lives. Msgr. Georg has something of his younger brother’s capacity to illuminate profound truths with simple examples taken from everyday life.

As we head into the season of graduations, ordinations, confirmations and the like, I have no doubt many people will buy the elder Ratzinger’s book as a gift. It is a good choice, easy as it is to read in a conversational format. But while it is clearly suitable for a priest, I think it would be an excellent gift for Catholic moms and dads for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I found the account of the early life of the Ratzinger family most compelling.

The critical task for Catholic families today is to create within the home a Catholic culture which can withstand the secular, often pagan, frequently debauched, common culture around us. Given that the “outside” culture is very much present inside the home by means of television and internet, the challenge is all the greater.

Msgr. Georg tells of growing up in the intensely Catholic culture of Bavaria in the 1920s and 1930s. There were difficulties to be sure, as the passionately anti-Nazi Ratzinger family had to cope with the rise of Hitler, but the Ratzinger parents built their home on the best elements of Bavarian Catholicism. While the ambiance today is much different, Catholic parents who desire practical models of how to establish a Catholic family culture can learn much from how the Ratzinger family lived.

“Many people in our time practise a form of atheism rather than the Christian faith,” Msgr. Georg says. “In some respects, they may maintain a sort of vestigial religiosity; perhaps they still go to Mass on the major feast days, but this rudimentary faith long ago ceased to permeate their lives, and it has no bearing on their everyday routine. It starts with sitting down at table and beginning a meal without even thinking about prayer, and it ends with no longer coming to church regularly on Sundays. Thus, an almost pagan way of life has taken root.”

How does a Catholic family combat this drift into paganism? Mr. and Mrs. Ratzinger point the way.

“From our parents we learned what it means to have a firm grasp of faith in God,” Msgr. Georg explains. “Every day we prayed together, and in fact before and after each meal (we ate our breakfast, dinner and supper together). The main prayer time was after the midday dinner, when the particular concerns of the family were expressed. Part of it was the prayer to Saint Dismas, the ‘good thief’… We prayed to him, the patron of repentant thieves, to protect Father from professional troubles. Being a policeman, after all, was a rather dangerous profession.”

In an anecdote, the octogenarian monsignor recalls the deep impression the habit of prayer can make on children, even if they — and their parents! — don’t fully understand what they are doing.

“Our parents also put us to bed and prayed our evening prayers with us. They used a very special form of blessing and repeated it three times. This was followed by another somewhat expansive blessing. Once I asked my father what it meant, but all he said to me was, ‘I do not know exactly either. My father and mother used to pray this prayer at my bedside.’ ”

And so it goes, a Catholic culture passes by way of the family. The faith is passed on, from grandfather to father to … even the Holy Father himself.

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