‘My Brother, Benedict XVI’ — An Interview with Msgr. Georg Ratzinger
Msgr. Ratzinger discusses his brother, his life as a priest, his passion for music, and his memories of his brother’s predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II.
Editor’s Note: On the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s historic 2008 visit to the United States, Register correspondent Robert Rauhut spoke with Benedict’s brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, who died July 1, 2020. This exclusive interview originally ran as a two-part series at the Register — “When Your Little Brother Is the Pope” (April 15, 2008) and “My Brother, the Pope” (May 6, 2008). Both parts are presented here in their entirety.
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Msgr. Georg Ratzinger remembers someone once asking him about his brother Joseph, three years his junior, “You are Ratzinger’s brother, aren’t you?”
“Ratzinger?” he said, “That’s me!”
Nowadays, he is “Pope Benedict XVI’s brother,” and can look back at an eventful and very full life, from his being forced to serve as a soldier to directing the world-famous Regensburger Domspatzen choir, which has performed around the world.
The Register was granted a rare and in-depth interview with this warm, friendly and pious man. Days before Pope Benedict visited the United States, Robert Rauhut met and spoke with him in the little house in the historic center of Regensburg that has been his home for some time.
How did you and your brother and sister keep your faith during the difficulties of your childhood?
From the very beginning, the Mother of God has played an integral part in our spiritual life.
At our parents’ house we often prayed the Rosary. We knelt on the ground, leaning on chairs. That showed us very early how important the Mother of God is for a Christian.
We also observed the many Marian feasts. My mother and my sister were called Maria. Obviously, the name has been important in my family. We also traveled to Altötting [one of Europe’s greatest Marian shrines]. We know we are indebted to the Mother of God and can carry all our worries to her.
The Rosary, the midday prayers on Sunday, the festive Corpus Christi processions in Bavaria: These practices of popular piety makes one’s faith becomes personal — not abstract or formal, but personal, human, kind and precious, a faith which enters our life story and claims an essential place.
You and your brother were both conscripted into the German army as teenagers. How did you get through that experience?
Generally speaking, it was a time of restlessness, of waiting and hope, hoping that it would end and that one would survive. One didn’t focus on the present; one looked to the future. Let me give one example. During one night we were tasked with repairing telephone lines. The sky was lit by a fire, a giant forest fire, and we all thought: We need to survive this night. We hope to survive and live an ordinary, civil life, where we can realize our life plans, enter a profession, prepare for a career and then accomplish it — return to an ordered life.
At the end of the war, like your brother, you were briefly held captive. Your brother says he will never forget the joy of coming home.
I had been in American captivity, in South Italy, close to Vesuvius, and we had no connection with the rest of the world. We only knew that everything was going in all directions in Germany, that the Americans were coming in, the Germans made last defense attempts. But I did not know if my parents were still alive, what was going on with my sister and brother. Is our house still standing? I did not know anything.
At the beginning of July we were brought by ship to the north, and then by bus to Bad Aibling. [Bad Aibling was a huge camp for prisoners.] We were there a few days and then we were dismissed. Americans took us in their vans into the areas where we had lived. I was running home and wanted to know: “Is anyone alive? Are the same people there? Is my house there?”
My mother was standing at the well, my father was at home, my brother had returned from captivity, and my sister was also there. That was probably the sweetest moment in my life.
You have also visited the United States with the Regensburger choir. How do you remember that country?
It is a vast country with different facets. Our concerts particularly attracted Germans in exile. They were pleased to meet people from their homeland and hear songs that brought their homeland to them.
I remember a church service in Boston, in which we also sang. It was very human, friendly, unconstrained. We liked it very much. Those were the most important bits.
I also remember visiting a McDonald’s. It was quite surprising that you throw away all the dishes after the meal. But obviously you also have a culture of eating in the private sphere of American life, outside the fast-food restaurants.
Your brother is just visiting the country. Do you have any fears or expectations?
I do not have any particular fears that something could happen. In America there are hardly any assassination attempts. The fears are, if he will succeed in fulfilling the expectations of the population.
He has got the ability to talk to the people, to appear as a sympathetic human being. I hope this will be clear to all in the United States.
This visit has not only a human aspect, but in particular a religious one. I hope he will make our faith sympathetic, credible. That’s the real aim of this pastoral visit. It is not a matter of tourism.
That’s what I really hope, that in all the circles he gets to visit, that this will work. Maybe it can bring the Catholic Church in America a pastoral impetus.
Now your brother has become Pope. How do you remember your last visit with him, at Christmastime?
Usually we celebrate Mass together in the morning. My brother is the main celebrant: The secretaries and I concelebrate. After the Mass there is silent thanksgiving. And then he reads the breviary to me; because of my eye problems, I cannot read the breviary anymore.
We also pray the lauds [morning prayer] and mid-morning prayer together. I have to be content with the Rosary. He reads the whole breviary in Latin.
Then we have breakfast, together with a few others. I go to my room. Often, Sister Christina reads something for me aloud. I listen to a lot of CDs.
A short time before lunch he comes to get me, and we go down together to eat. There we are together, also the secretaries. He pays attention to walks, to movement, because that is important for his physical condition.
I remember that once we were driven by car to the Lourdes grotto in the Vatican Gardens. My condition is too poor to walk there. And there we prayed the Rosary together. And then we talk a little bit and meet again for dinner.
After dinner we watch the news on RAI [Italian TV], then another little walk, compline [evening prayer] and the day ends.
Do you have a lot of time to talk together?
A little, but we spend the meal times together, the Celebration of the Eucharist, the afternoon Rosary and most of Sunday afternoon, after the siesta, especially in Castel Gandolfo.
For example, we sat close to the swimming pool there, where we read together and talked to each other. ... At the end of the day there is usually little time. But the minutes spent together suffice.
Do you plan another visit?
I will be going down April 22 because on April 24 there is a concert organized by Italian President [Giorgio] Napolitano, and I will attend that. So I will stay a few more days.
Has something changed on a personal level after the election of your brother as pope?
No. My brother was already 78 years old when he was elected pope. Our personal relationship had already lasted 78 years by then.
So, fundamentally, nothing changes with regard to that.
But is it possible for you to distinguish your “little brother” from your Holy Father?
Certainly I have respect for him and one has to distinguish between the general human aspect, him being my brother, and the ecclesial one, that he is my superior in that regard. And there he also enjoys my particular admiration.
But in our personal conversation we are just the same as ever.
Do you talk about theology and ecclesial politics?
Hardly. Our conversation is everyday talk, but also remembrances. On ecclesial politics very little, because I generally do not want to interfere in his job and I do not want to influence him in any way.
Issues that are known generally are sometimes taken into the discussion, but generally little.
I like reading his works, but talking about it is something different. Sometimes when I have read something, I will ask him about it so that he can explain it to me. But we … are together in a human way and talk about everyday human life.
He asks about people he knows from Regensburg and other places. He wants to know how they’re doing and what they’re up to.
Do you regularly talk on the phone?
It varies. There is no rule — generally, at least once a week.
First he wants to know what has been going on, and I tell him. And then vice versa. We do not talk very long.
What practical benefit is there for you when your brother is the pope?
Obviously, I see its practical benefit when I visit my brother in Rome: I get very quickly from the airport to the Vatican — and if you know the traffic jams around Rome then you know that this is not easy.
There is also an important dimension in the Eucharist: Here is the Vicar of Christ celebrating Mass. There is a special atmosphere around that. But apart from that everything is similar.
Has your brother gotten used to the new office? I mean, he planned a different life.
He is very flexible. He can adapt well to a given situation. And he pays full attention to all that is demanded and expected of him. And this new requirement, new dimension of his everyday life, is something he has quickly adapted to.
Has the election of Pope Benedict changed the Church in Germany?
It is difficult to see any obvious difference. For those who already believe, it has definitely been a plus. For those who are standing at the edge, who are not against it, for them it has occasioned some pointed reflection.
In some it has led to a change of their personal attitude. Some have found a connection with the Church in some way — to what extent I cannot say. I have heard, for example, that the World Youth Day in Cologne has been very fruitful for pastoral work with young people in a parish — a growing interest, more positive attitudes, liveliness and willingness. That’s one testimony, but there are certainly many more.
Will your brother visit Germany again?
The desire is there. But he has the same obligation toward the whole world. He has already been to Germany twice. Now it’s the turn for other countries. So a question mark is wise. And on the other hand, traveling does not get easier with advancing age.
What plans and desires do you have for the evening of your life?
At our age, life is fulfilled. One has reached his aims, or missed them. One tries to live the last months or years, the days there are, in a way that does not cause problems, creates peace — to do one’s tasks as well as one can. The Pope got a new perspective, a new horizon, with his election, which has already lasted three years, and he also has no especially big plans but is confronted with a radically different reality and tries to find the right solutions for this reality. Dreams or desires? No, I do not have them now.
How did you discover your vocation?
It was a different time then. Today, one expects an enlightening event, a certain feeling that gives insight.
From childhood onwards we participated in ecclesial life. I became an altar server very early. That was the world I felt at home in. And in this regular experience of the liturgy, also as altar server, it became clear for me: That’s my place, that’s where I belong.
I did not need a particular event. My vocation had gradually grown clearer.
How did your parents react? Both sons decided for the priesthood.
There was no particular reaction by our parents because it developed gradually.
Our parents said: “You have to know that. We help you, we do our part, we give you opportunities, but you have to know it.”
Our parents said it from the beginning: “Parents are not allowed to force children one way or the other. The parents have to stand behind their children’s decisions.”
I remember Cardinal [Joseph] Höffner, deceased archbishop of Cologne, talked about his vocation. His father was speechless but then said, “I suppose I will have to buy you a black suit.”
Did you have any doubts?
No, no doubts of faith. But there are always questions, where I have to say, “I do not understand that, that’s a riddle to me and I do not know how other people understand that. Our Lord will clear it up, on the other side.”
Difficulties of understanding are there again and again. But doubts of faith? No.
What has been your high point during your life as priest?
During the Second Vatican Council, the Regensburger Domspatzen and I were allowed to musically design one of the Eucharists. Every council session began with a solemn Mass in which all council fathers were assembled. That was magnificent.
It was the first time that I took part in a Eucharist at St. Peter’s Basilica — the assembly of the bishops, the Pope at the altar, non-Catholic and press observers … Accompanying the Mass was very elevating.
Is there an oasis where you spiritually refresh yourself?
The most important part of the day is the Eucharist, which I concelebrate daily. Because of my eye problems I cannot celebrate on my own, so I am forced to concelebrate.
I cannot imagine life without daily celebration. Just to celebrate once a week — as some priests do — is not imaginable for me.
I refresh myself in the Eucharist, early in the morning, in an atmosphere of quietness, of peace, of adoration. It is also an inner building-up. That suffices for the whole day.
That’s the way the day has to start; I like the Eucharist most in the morning. Consequently you do not need much more in order to feed yourself spiritually.
What role does patriotism, being tied to one’s roots, mean to you and your family?
Our home is here, where our mind rests, where we belong. First Traunstein, much later Regensburg. After all the journeys, one has his place, his stability, where one belongs, where one can come to rest, retire.
Being tied to one’s roots is a necessity in a human life. That will never become passé; this is true of young people, even of city-dwellers.
Is there a place where you would wish to go, together with your brother?
In the past I wanted to make a trip to Spain, to Santiago de Compostela, the place of pilgrimage connected with St. James. I would have loved to see that, but also Toledo with its wonderful huge churches.
Today, I have written that off. But for a long time that had been my dream.
Music is your passion. You directed for so many years the Regensburger choir, one of the most famous in the world. What criteria should liturgical music fulfill?
Liturgical music must lead towards prayer and meditation. It has to calm one, to enable one to concentrate on God, on the essential.
The basic attitude, adoration, is essential in the liturgy. It has to help in that. What does not help is obviously not suitable.
What kind of music do you prefer?
For me, Gregorian chant is strongly associated with the early period of Christianity — unsentimental, unspectacular, simple, concentrating on interiority, but also classical, vocal polyphony and classical music like Haydn, Mozart and Schubert.
For many people, Pope John Paul II is a saint. What do you think of him?
I admired him from the very beginning. I met him personally in the Hercules hall in Munich during his first German visit, where he was talking to artists. We were allowed to sing there.
He seemed likable to me from the beginning. He was a type of father figure, he radiated goodness and benevolence. One knew that from pictures and the TV, but in personal encounters, one experienced it firsthand.
His solidarity, his friendliness — not only because of his human temperament, but increased and deepened because he did it as representative of our faith, as pope, so that the humanness was combined with our understanding of God in a good way.
Sainthood is often placed at an unreachable place. I have a “realistic concept of sainthood,” meaning human beings are simply human beings, but in this area of humanness they radiate an ideal of humanness. And that is the impression I got from Pope John Paul II.
I remember that during our second trip to Rome we were allowed to sing in his private chapel and afterward we were allowed to sing two songs in a room next to the chapel. The Pope came to each of us, greeted every person, gave a greeting to the parents of the choir boys and handed out a small present.
There you could feel this human atmosphere in a very dense and intensive way. I have esteemed him very much from the very beginning and thought that this is the pope for our time. One could have not wished a better one.
When I was visiting my brother in Rome in the 1990s, I had a heart attack, and my brother told the Pope. And John Paul II said that he would include me in his prayers. That was a very special consolation, a very special support.
Did the friendship between Pope John Paul II and your brother affect you personally?
For that, I did not know the Holy Father well enough, but maybe somehow yes.
During that second trip to Rome, I remember having taken part in the breakfast with the Holy Father, together with my brother and sister. One felt a real friendship.
But I think John Paul II was very kind to everybody he encountered. An increase was not necessary, I believe.
In your view, what should the faithful pay attention to?
I think there should be a change in thinking. On the one hand, the situation of the Church is described with resignation as without any future. But on the other hand, one notices that in the very places people are resigned to one way, there are break-ups.
Faith is very deep inside, still alive in our area and expresses itself in unexpected occurrences and actions. It is important that those who are deeply faithful practice their faith, that they not hide their faith, that they openly proclaim it — that they live their faith with decision. I think that in such a context, fixed points are enormously important, and they will attract people who falter, who do not know what do, who perhaps are open but cannot decide. They need guideposts.
Robert Rauhut is based in Munich.