Milestones, an endearing autobiographical narrative of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's first fifty years, is an intimate portrait of the man who has been the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since November 1981. His life story is a beautiful melding of faith and reason, and shows itself as a gift preserved from the darkness and evils of Hitler's Germany.
Joseph Ratzinger was born the youngest of three children. His birth, on Holy Saturday in 1927, is seen by the Cardinal as a powerful portent in the realm of Divine Providence. He writes, “The fact that my day of birth was the last day of Holy Week and the eve of Easter has always been noted in our family history.” His baptism was performed on the very day of his birth, with the newly blessed holy water adding to the significance of the factors surrounding his birth.
Cardinal Ratzinger was born into the turbulent times of an unstable republic. The Nazi Party, or the brownshirts, were gathering support behind Adolf Hitler, who would soon gain control of Germany. The Cardinal's father, a rural policeman who was transferred often because of his job, stands out in these early years as a man who publicly opposed the violence and tyranny of Hitler's regime. As the Cardinal recalls, “Time and again, in public meetings, Father had to take a position against the violence of the Nazis. We could very clearly sense the immense anxiety weighing him down, which he could not manage to shake even during ordinary activities.”
The ominous shadow of Nazism darkened the young Joseph Ratzinger's life. It took time for National Socialism to affect the daily lives of the Ratzinger family, but changes began to occur within even the most stable of civic and social institutions. The ideologies of Hitler were fast becoming the yardstick by which national loyalty would be measured.
In 1937, at age 10, Joseph moved to Traunstein, where the Ratzingers had purchased a small farmhouse four years earlier, in expectation of his father's retirement. These days spent in the “slightly dilapidated house that Father had fixed up,” stand out as some of the fondest memories of the Cardinal's youth. He writes, “After all our wanderings, this is where my memory always returns with gratitude.”
There is a real humanness about the Cardinal's dependence on his family, that helps to convey the genuine warmth of the man.
Not long after the move to Traunstein, Joseph Ratzinger was asked by his pastor to enter the minor seminary, “in order to be initiated systematically into the spiritual life.” His entrance into the seminary took place at Easter of 1939—once more, the mystery of the Resurrection being intimately woven into the fabric of the Cardinal's life.
Cardinal Ratzinger's memoirs provide the reader with insight into his theological and spiritual formation. His studies in the major seminary in Freising after the war provided solid underpinnings for a life of erudition that would ready him for his task as defender of the faith. (The Cardinal Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responsible for the preservation and promotion of the Catholic faith, is considered the most important curial office in the Vatican.) Cardinal Ratzinger's spiritual formation in the seminary went beyond his studies; his life witnesses the indelible mark of “the great liturgical celebrations in the cathedral, and the hours of silent prayer in the house chapel.”
The Cardinal's theological studies in Munich are presented with clarity and candor. This section of the book shows the Cardinal as an analytical and progressive scholar. He writes passionately about his preconciliar theological studies. “All of us lived with the feeling of radical change that had already arisen in the 1920s, the sense of a theology that had the courage to ask new questions and a spirituality that was doing away with what was dusty and obsolete and leading to a new joy in the redemption,” he writes.
Thirty-six pages of photographs stand as a bridge between the first six chapters and the last seven. The second half of the work is thoroughly engaging, with its focus on the Cardinal's advanced studies, his ordination, and his priest-hood. The clarity of his prose pushes the narrative forward, with little effort required by the reader.
Throughout the story, the importance of family is sounded as a constant theme. The Cardinal's life decisions always take into account the other members of his family—how his parents and siblings fit in. His relationship with his family stands in stark contrast to the modern quagmire of the fractured and fragmented familial unit. There is a real humanness about the Cardinal's dependence on his family, that helps to convey the genuine warmth of the man.
Cardinal Ratzinger's participation in Vatican II as the theological advisor to Josef Cardinal Frings, the archbishop of Cologne, allows the Cardinal to comment with authority on certain aspects of the Council. He goes into some depth on the questions of liturgical reform and the sources of revelation. His clear, forceful discourse captures the significance and drama of the early 1960s in Vatican City.
The Cardinal's autobiography is an accessible sketch of some of the most prominent factors that helped to form his intellect and spirit. His honest analysis of these factors leaves a deep impression that dissuades the reader from categorizing or pigeonholing the Cardinal as a distant Church administrator, divorced from the problems and struggles of the Catholic in the pew.
Robert Nerney writes from Providence, R.I.