The Ratzinger Family Secret
German journalist Michael Hesemann had an enlightening experience interviewing Msgr. Georg Ratzinger for the new book My Brother, the Pope.
Msgr. Georg Ratzinger’s new book, My Brother, the Pope, brings new insights into the private life of the Ratzinger family. First published in Germany, the book is a series of interviews Msgr. Ratzinger gave to German journalist Michael Hesemann.
Hesemann was born in Düsseldorf in 1964 and studied history and cultural anthropology at the University of Göttingen. Accredited at the Holy See Press Office since 1999, Hesemann wrote several bestselling books on Church history and Christian archaeology.
My Brother, the Pope has been translated into English by Michael Miller and was recently published in the United States by Ignatius Press. Hesemann spoke with Register correspondent Robert Rauhut about the project.
Msgr. Ratzinger has been reserved, regarding public interviews. What was the motivation to do a book like this?
Right after the election of Benedict XVI, I was commissioned by my publisher to write a biography of the new Pope for the young participants of the World Youth Day in Cologne. Already at that time I had the idea that it would be important to interview the Pope’s brother as the most important living eyewitness of Joseph Ratzinger’s childhood, his formative years. But my publisher needed the book in two weeks. I didn’t have enough time, and I was sure someone else would do it soon anyway. But I waited for five years, and nothing happened. Eventually, in December 2010, I was introduced to Georg Ratzinger, and I just took the opportunity to approach him with my idea. He hesitated a little bit, but, eventually, a few weeks later, he agreed. I think he felt and agreed that it was his responsibility to history to collect his memories and get them documented for future generations; and, indeed, they became a unique testimony.
Was Pope Benedict XVI somehow involved in the development of this book?
Well, I am sure Msgr. Ratzinger told his brother about our common project. And when he visited his brother, the Pope, in June 2011, he had a copy of the unpublished manuscript with him, which I had given him at least to show to his brother. But Msgr. Ratzinger and I had an agreement to leave the final decision about the publication to Msgr. Georg Gänswein, the personal secretary of the Holy Father. Indeed, I only signed a contract with my publisher after I received the green light from Msgr. Gänswein that the book could be published. We just wanted to avoid any mistakes; and since Msgr. Ratzinger has eye problems and can’t read well anymore, it was important that a neutral, competent person read it before it was published. I am very grateful to him that he took the time, although the corrections he did were just minor details.
By now, there are many books about Pope Benedict XVI. What’s special about My Brother, the Pope? What new aspect does the Ratzinger fan get to know from reading the book?
Without any doubt, My Brother, the Pope is the most intimate biography of the Holy Father. Who knows him better than his brother? Besides the Holy Father’s own memoirs — a rather small booklet he published when he was still a cardinal — no other book written about him is based on inside knowledge and insight like this. Keep in mind that Msgr. Georg Ratzinger is the elder brother of Pope Benedict, three years older. Both brothers were, for all their life, as we say in Germany, always “one heart and one soul,” a very harmonic pair of brothers. Georg felt his vocation three years earlier and certainly served, to a certain degree, as a role model for his brother. And, indeed, we learn a lot of new details, like the fact that a cousin was murdered by the Nazis.
Georg Ratzinger has an amazing memory, hasn’t he?
He has an excellent memory, indeed. After I interviewed him for a week, two sessions a day — one in the morning, one in the afternoon — I decided to visit all the places mentioned in the book to get a better idea and also to check if all details were indeed like Msgr. Ratzinger described them. And I found his descriptions to be of a stunning precision. Everything was just like he described it; I did not have to correct a single detail. Even local names he remembered correctly, after 70 to 80 years. It’s the same brilliant memory his brother has — who still remembers so many names of people he met a decade ago.
In the past, we have experienced various attempts to reduce Pope Benedict’s past to the Nazi era. How does this book help to address that mischaracterization of the Ratzinger family’s values and activities during that era?
Well, you could have been hardly more anti-Nazi than the Ratzinger family. The Pope’s father was a small-town policeman when he stopped Nazi rallies and ended Nazi Party meetings, so the Nazis complained about him, and he was advised to request removal to a village — which he did, although it was a step down the career ladder. He hated them; he called Hitler “the Antichrist.” He couldn’t wait for his retirement, since he did not want to serve the Nazi regime, and, of course, he never joined the Nazi Party.
Instead, he was a subscriber to the most outspoken Catholic anti-Nazi newspaper, Der Gerade Weg (The Straight Path), whose editor in chief, Fritz Gerlich, was murdered by the Nazis just after they came to power. After Hitler’s election, Joseph Ratzinger Sr. told his family frankly and nearly prophetically: “Soon we will have a war, so let’s buy a house” — which they did.
He wanted to create security. They did not want to stay in an office flat of/for policemen. He foresaw a possible devaluation of money already earned and saved. And his retirement wasn’t a long way off. To ensure his family greater security they bought a house.
Indeed, the decision of both brothers to join the seminary was also a protest against the Nazis, and you can just imagine how seminarians were mocked by the Nazi boys of their age. Although it was the law to join the Hitler Youth and the whole class was automatically enlisted, young Joseph Ratzinger avoided it. He frankly told his school teacher he did not want to go, and, eventually, the teacher allowed him to stay at home. Even their older sister, Maria Ratzinger, who was an intelligent young lady and dreamed of becoming a school teacher for all her childhood, refused to study when the Nazis came to power and became a lawyer’s secretary instead: She just did not want to teach Nazi ideology at a Nazi school.
There were a few good Catholics in Germany, even during the Nazi regime — people who suffered a lot — and the Ratzingers were among them.
Reading the book, we also get to know some aspects about Joseph Ratzinger’s relationship with Blessed John Paul II. How would you characterize it, taking into account your talks with Msgr. Ratzinger?
It was a relationship based on both friendship and respect. John Paul II was maybe the greatest missionary of all time, but he was no theoretical theologian. So he needed Cardinal Ratzinger; and he knew he was the right man to become his theological adviser after he read one of his books.
He asked him to come to Rome, although Ratzinger, who was completely unambitious for all his life, always refused. Only when he asked a third time. He had to follow the Pope, out of respect and obedience. Still, he was always looking forward to his retirement, even when John Paul II regularly asked him to stay a little more.
Eventually, after the Pope’s death, Cardinal Ratzinger hoped that he would spend more time in Bavaria, write some new books, travel together with his brother ... when the conclave destroyed all these nice human plans and replaced them by God’s plan for him.
Georg Ratzinger was very shocked to see his brother elected Pope, wasn’t he? How has their relationship changed?
Oh yes, he was shattered. He was so depressed for a whole day that he did not want to go to the phone, which rang constantly. And only when his housekeeper answered did they realize it was the new Pope, who, for quite some time, tried to reach his brother. But, in the meantime, they both learned to live with this new situation.
The Holy Father calls Georg Ratzinger every other evening, in the meantime, on a separate phone he got just for this purpose. And at least four times a year Georg Ratzinger travels for more or less 10 days to Rome or Castel Gandolfo to spend time with his brother. So they are still very close.
What has impressed you personally, spending all these hours together with the Pope’s brother? Has this book modified your perspective on the pontificate in some way?
Well, what impressed me most was what turned out to be the Ratzinger family secret. How did it happen that a rather simple family, a country policeman and a hotel cook, raised two sons who were both geniuses, each one of his kind — Georg Ratzinger, as the famous musician, composer and choir leader who toured the world, and Joseph Ratzinger, the greatest German theologian and 265th successor of St. Peter?
Eventually, I found out that their source of inspiration was the intense Catholic faith and strong piety of this family. They prayed the Rosary together every day, kneeling on the kitchen floor; they went to church regularly; they celebrated the feasts of the Church year.
The common prayer and devotion became the source for the strong love that united this family, their powerful source which helped them to overcome the temptations of those turbulent times and made them immune against the blasphemous Nazi ideology and caused their vocation.
Today we have a crisis of vocations, and I strongly believe we can overcome it when we bring back the faith, bring back the prayer into our families. And not only vocations will happen: A family that prays together stays together.
How many family problems, divorces, addictions can be avoided if families start to rediscover the blessings of common prayer, of a religious life?
Well, my idea about Pope Benedict has not changed, but it was intensified by the work on this book: It confirmed that he truly is the nearly shy, humble man I encountered before, who sees himself indeed as just a simple worker in the vineyard of the Lord. But I learned how he got there, not by personal ambition, since he never planned any career, but that he was literally pushed there, sometimes dragged to a position where he never wanted to be, by a strong, unseen hand, by divine Providence, by the hand of God.
Robert Rauhut writes from Berlin.
- March 25-April 7, 2012