Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on December 19, 2018.
After just receiving Benedict XVI: His Life and Thought in the mail, I am astounded by the early life of our Pope Emeritus. Since becoming a Catholic in 2012, I've heard the rumors of his Nazi involvement and other rumors and rushed judgments on his resignation, but this book provides outstanding detail of his life and thoughts, often from his own words. I was so impressed by his life that I wanted to share with readers a few of the interesting facts laid out early in the book.
1. His Father put in a singles ad to get engaged
His Father waited until his forties to meet a woman and start a family. He didn't have a typical social life in the local beer hall or elsewhere, so he resorted to placing an ad in the Liebfrauenbote, the local Catholic newspaper with a simple description of himself: "State employee, single, Catholic, forty-three years old. Seeks matrimony, as soon as possible, a capable Catholic girl."
2. His earliest memories are his love of Bavaria
In his 2006, while preparing to visit Bavaria for the first time of his pontificate, he remarked, "I love the beauty of our land, and I like to take long walks. I am a Bavarian patriot; I particularly like Bavaria, our history, and of course our art." Who can blame him?
3. His parents insisted on frequent family prayer
As if the personal ad in the newspaper didn't clarify this for you, the Ratzinger household made sure their lives were rooted in the Church, the liturgy, and prayer. "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 where laid out."
4. He was named after St. Gonzaga
His biographer tells us that "in the early hours of April 16, 1927, [the] third child was born, who was named Joseph Aloysius. The first name, as was the custom of the family, was his father's, the second, the equivalent of Louis, was given to him in honor of an uncle who had become a priest and had taken the name of the young Italian Jesuit Saint."
5. He was baptized in brand new Holy Water
In those times, his biographer writes, the baptismal font was drained and a fresh supply of water was poured and blessed on Holy Saturday as a fitting part of the Paschal liturgy. Joseph was born several hours before and his father wanted to seize the opportunity while his mother rested from a difficult delivery. His father bundled him up and took him to be baptized. Cardinal Ratzinger later commented in his memoirs: "I have always been filled with thanksgiving for having had my life immersed in this way in the Easter mystery, since this could only be a sign of blessing."
6. His father predicted World War II
Naziism took little time to infect the population of southern Germany and Adoph Hilter held a solid influence on many other influential Germans in Bavaria. His father wrote to relatives as early as 1932: "War is going to break out soon; we need a house."
7. Some of his local Nazi teachers wanted to revert to paganism
One instructor, Benedict XVI's biographer points out, organized a May festival that was supposed to be the start of the renewal of the Germanic religion in the area. The teacher set up a Maypole with sausages hanging from the top of it, reading a prayer to start the festivity. Most of the farmers laughed.
8. Benedict XVI loved to “play” Mass as a boy
He was given a Schott which was a basic instruction book for Mass, highlighting the gestures and movements to each part of the Mass. He used this to play as a priest with his brothers and friends. When he received First Communion, he was given a more advanced Schott that explained each part of the Mass, giving meaning to this "play time" which he was already familiar.
9. He continued to play Mass for years
"It was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the liturgy, which was being enacted before us there on the altar." Eventually, he got little toy chalices, candles, and other objects to bring together the fullness of the Eucharistic liturgy.
10. He watched as his siblings were forced into Hitler Youth activities
His sister Maria, Benedict XVI recalled, was forced with his older brother to participate in several Hitler Youth events. One time they were forced to wear the uniform of the Youth and march in the streets as an organized unit for the "glory of Germany." His father was deeply worried about the impact this might have on the young consciences, not just those of his children, and began to plan their eventual move.
11. He received First Communion the same way as his namesake
Just as St. Gonzaga had received First Communion from a Cardinal, that of Charles Borromeo, Benedict XVI received the sacrament from Cardinal von Faulhaber.
The list of fascinating facts goes on. His father's decisions; his mother's faith; his growing interest in the seminaries; the systematic oppression of the schools and seminaries he entered into; and his eventual forced enrollment in the Hitler Youth, etc. Reading of his early life presented a whole new understanding of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to me and I am deeply impressed with the rest of his life as well. He has truly been a gift to the Church in our time and we cannot so simply forget about his life and his impact.