My Brother, the Pope
Second and final part of the exclusive interview with Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, brother of Pope Benedict XVI.
Msgr. Georg Ratzinger has the rarest of distinctions: His younger brother, Joseph, is the Pope. In the second part of his exclusive interview with the Register, Msgr. Ratzinger — the former director of the world-famous Regensburger Domspatzen choir — discusses his life as a priest, his passion for music, and his memories of his brother’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II. He spoke last month with Register correspondent Robert Rauhut at Msgr. Ratzinger’s home in Regensburg, Bavaria.
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.
is based in Munich.
- May 11-17, 2008