When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, many friends, neighbors and students at DeSales University said in so many words, “I really don’t have an idea about who he is.”
A well-known journalist who has written numerous articles about the Pope privately told me much the same thing.
The problem is basically a language gap.
The people who know the Pope best, those who lived, studied and worked with him, for decades in some cases, live in his native land of Bavaria. Their anecdotes, remembrances and testimonies started appearing in April 2005, but only in German. About a dozen English biographies available in the United States do not make use of this important, revealing material.
What do they reveal about Benedict?
In the first place, everyone should know that Joseph Ratzinger is a genius, a world-class intellectual. Proof of this fact abounds in his immense body of writings and his amazing list of academic honors. Scores of people can attest to the gigantic dimensions of his memory.
He has been called “the Mozart of theology” not only for the clarity and simplicity of his prose, even while expounding on the most difficult subjects, but also for the fact that he tends to write and publish in a single draft.
It is said Mozart routinely had whole operas completely composed in his head and then merely wrote them down, in a clean, nearly flawless manuscript. Ratzinger does the same with books.
Mozart came from Salzburg, a great center of art and culture. Joseph Ratzinger came from a tiny market town by a river crossing. His family lived one step above poverty.
His father was a country constable, and his mother a seasonal cook. Both were hardworking, frugal people, and loving in their own way. He learned his faith from them, and worshipped with the local farmers and townsmen.
He never lost his appreciation for the simple forms of traditional Catholic piety.
Joseph Ratzinger once called himself “a perfectly ordinary Christian,” by which he meant that he was no great mystic. From his childhood to this very day, he has strongly identified his Catholic faith with that of the simple people, of rural Bavaria and across the world.
As a child, Joseph came into the age of reason while the madness of Nazism was spreading all across Germany. His father moved the family repeatedly to escape local pockets of it. Joseph grew into manhood while the Nazi military machine savaged the whole of Europe.
As a teenager, drafted into the labor service, SS soldiers routinely yanked him out of bed in the middle of the night and shouted at him to enlist; Joseph clearly stated his intention to become a Catholic priest. They laughed in his face and bawled that there will be no priests in the coming thousand years of the Third Reich. He was lucky that the abuse did not exceed the verbal.
In the last days of the war, when Hitler was dead and only Nazi maniacs were keen to extend Germany’s murder-suicide any further, Joseph went AWOL.
He left the barracks, headed for the outskirts of town and ran smack into two SS men. He could have been shot on sight for desertion. Roughly 20,000 German soldiers were executed for the same transgression.
Love watched over him, and the SS let him go. Two more SS officers then came to his parents’ house, and Joseph’s father treated them to an anti-Hitler tirade. He could have been murdered on the spot.
Next to come were the Americans, who took young Joseph away at gunpoint.
Only after several weeks was he allowed to return to his parents’ farmhouse at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. He was treated to a simple meal from his mother’s kitchen garden that he will never forget.
The horrific memory of World War II has never left him, as it should never leave us. He knows how commonplace, how powerful and seductive, lies and falsehood can be for people who are reluctant to think critically.
Hitler and his henchmen instituted a regime based on untruth. They promised a golden future of prosperity served on a platter of total war. They blamed all things bad on a defenseless minority and wrought the havoc we all know well.
The evil was more mundane than glamorous. There was nothing uplifting about any of it, even if convinced followers felt empowered.
In becoming a priest, Joseph dedicated himself to the service of truth, of peace, of love, reconciliation and redemption. This, he knows from personal experience, is the only way forward for a world torn apart by war, suffering, stupidity and baseness. Rooted firmly in his humble, Bavarian spirituality, he has never wavered from this commitment.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, he had an exceptional career as a professional scholar of theology at four universities in Germany. He served as an official theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.
From 1977, on the invitation of Pope Paul VI, he entered the leadership of the Church at the rank of cardinal. No one can seriously accuse him of ambitiously pursuing rank and honor in Catholic hierarchy. He entered at the top, so to speak.
For decades, writers and especially journalists have divided him into various phases: liberal reformer to hard-line conservative; early, middle and late professor; academic vs. bishop, etc. None of these makes much sense.
His dissertation from 1951 on Augustine shows the same characteristics in thought, argument and style as his most recent book. His writings show consistency, and no revolutionary conversions.
For more than two decades in Rome, he was Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man. Being the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has got to be one of the most unpleasant positions in the Roman Curia. It has to deal with the whole gamut of controversy, dissent and crisis.
Cardinal Ratzinger managed the awesome workload and still had the time and energy to continue to write his majestic works of theology. The benefit of being the prefect is that his area of expertise expanded into politics, social issues and bioethics. It helped to prepare him for the position he holds today.
Cardinal Ratzinger never wanted to become pope. He told a friend of his that he was “a man of the second row.”
He tried to retire twice, and the Pope did not let him. The cardinal and his brother firmly intended to retire to a modest house near Regensburg, a beautiful little city on the Danube in Bavaria. But the College of Cardinals had other plans.
Now this simple genius can never go home, unless it is part of an apostolic journey, which always entails an enormous to-do for everyone involved. After a brief visit to his house in Regensburg in 2006, Benedict said he could not expect to return, due to the inconvenience imposed on so many people.
Until death he will serve the Church as Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ. He will proclaim the Gospel tirelessly and urge all people in the world to live according to Truth and Love.
And no one can do it the way he can.
Brennan Pursell is associate professor of history at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., and author of Benedict of Bavaria: An Intimate Portrait of the Pope
and His Homeland (Circle Press, 2008).