‘My Heart Beats Bavarian’

Katy Carl recommends Benedict of Bavaria, by Brennan Pursell.


by Brennan Pursell

Circle Press, 2008

240 pages, $24.95

To order: circlepress.org


Pope Benedict XVI has been living under the world’s microscope for three years. Is there anything left to learn about him?

Almost everything, according to Brennan Pursell’s new book, Benedict of Bavaria. Pursell postulates that Joseph Ratzinger’s background is more or less neglected by almost all of his previous biographers. For the former cardinal, Pursell says, Bavaria is not only a source of memories but also an interpretative key to his thought, personality, leadership style and way of living the Faith.

Pursuing this thesis through interviews, reminiscences and memoirs by the Pope’s former neighbors and countrymen, Pursell comes up with a warm narrative that blends inquiry with human interest.

It’s this rare glimpse at the humanity and heritage of Benedict that will most endear the book and its topic to readers, but it has other charms as well. It has the feel of a leisurely stroll through the German countryside, with Pursell as a knowledgeable, sympathetic companion.

Rather than bringing us face to face with Benedict — that has already been done admirably, in books like God and the World — Pursell brings us closer to him by an indirect route. After all, more than once, the Holy Father has said “My heart beats Bavarian.” Where better to find him than in his homeland?

In this journey, Pursell turns not only to his own personal experience of Bavaria, but to German sources that haven’t yet been made available in English. Here readers will find an introduction to German cultural virtues like fleiß (diligence), bescheidenheit (unassuming humility), geborgenheit (family stability) and gemütlichkeit (the joy of home life) that shaped Ratzinger’s formative experiences. There’s a retrospective of his seminary days, drawn from letters, and a warm portrait of his academic and professorial life, sourced from testimonies by Ratzinger’s students and colleagues.

There’s also a fair treatment of the Ratzinger family’s experience during World War II. The family members were neither heroic objectors nor shamefacedly complicit collaborators, in Pursell’s view, but faithful Catholics who prudently discerned ways to avoid association with the Nazis and to refuse involvement in evil.

In keeping with a major theme of the book — that of turning the secular journalistic caricature of Benedict on its head — Pursell takes the opportunity to prove that not only did experiencing Hitler’s regime not inspire Ratzinger to totalitarian views, it set him on a lifelong course of resistance to dictatorships, including the dictatorship of relativism.

Among other treats, the book includes a handy if cursory introduction to some main concepts in Benedict’s intellectual life. Given the unlikelihood of most casual readers’ picking up any of Benedict’s theological writings, there’s room to wish that Pursell had gone into a bit more depth here. But precisely for that casual reader, Pursell nicely avoids the danger of overpacking his book with detailed information, while still ensuring it has substance.

Those who want to pursue more serious studies, while they might not be able to use Benedict of Bavaria as a springboard for that purpose, will still find their personal interest piqued and their insight into Benedict’s character broadened by the book. So will everybody else.

Katy Carl is based in

Silver Spring, Maryland.