Pope’s Brother Discusses Holy Father’s Love for Liturgy, Learning and Simple Joys

Msgr. Georg Ratzinger offers candid interview in German newspaper.

Pope Benedict XVI and his elder brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger
Pope Benedict XVI and his elder brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger (photo: 2006 Getty Images photo)

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI is “as normal as ever,” his elder brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, has said in a candid interview published Sept. 18.

“I feel gradually age is catching up with him — walking appears more difficult, the voice has become somewhat quieter,” he added, but “mentally he shows no deterioration.”

During a long and rare conversation published in the Sept. 18 edition of the German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, Msgr. Ratzinger spoke openly and affectionately about the Holy Father, sharing what the two hold in common, how the Pope is coping with the papacy, and looking ahead to his younger brother’s four-day visit to his homeland this week. (A new book entitled My Brother the Pope, a series of interviews with Msgr. Ratzinger given to historian Michael Hesemann, was published in Germany last week, as well.)

Asked how he views his sibling today, Msgr. Ratzinger said he “had fulfilled exactly the destiny he had foreseen and who he had always wanted to be: a good teacher.”

“He is still the same — as a man he hasn’t changed,” he said. “He doesn’t try to pretend; he doesn’t slip into any role. He doesn’t wear a mask. Perhaps the Holy Spirit shines through him when he appears in public. Otherwise, he is the gracious, friendly and modest man he always was — always cordial and quite unaffected.”

When asked what he thinks of his brother’s busy schedule, Msgr. Ratzinger, an accomplished former choirmaster at Regensburg Cathedral in Bavaria, observed that the Pope “has to react to many things, and, of course, he’s rarely free.” Pontificates, he said, “are not so determined by the will of the Pope.”

But he stressed that one area where he is especially keen to exercise his will is in the liturgy. The Pope believes worship must be carried out “correctly and with dignity,” he said, “because it is no longer so easy to find a church where a priest celebrates by the rules of the Church.”

“Many priests,” the Pope’s brother continued, “think they have to add something here or change something there. My brother, however, wants an orderly and good liturgy from which man can grasp God’s call.” He said that both he and the Pope have always had a “religious attitude” in common and that they derive great joy from the faith, “especially the belief in God’s mercy.”

Msgr. Ratzinger, 87, will not be traveling with the Holy Father on his Sept. 22-25 state visit to Germany, as he believes he would just “get in the way” and would prefer to be in Rome instead.

Remembering their childhood, the Bavarian priest said he noticed early on that his brother Joseph “was by far the brightest” in the school. “That he had an extraordinary grasp of facts became known in elementary school,” he said. “He was the kind of pupil who could only always give joy to a teacher.”

The interviewer, Die Welt’s Rome correspondent Paul Badde, recalled that, as a child, Joseph Ratzinger would like nothing more than to sit on the grass and pick flowers. “It probably wasn’t for hours, but he could be very, very happy among the flowers,” Msgr. Ratzinger said, adding that he can still be just as contented now. “He’s very spontaneous with good news, flowers, good people,” he said. “He is truly very happy when I like his books, and it makes me happy if a CD of mine has especially moved him.”

As to the Pope’s daily routine, he has “always worked a lot,” but not usually after dinner. “He can concentrate during the day; he works very fast and is extremely focused, but he’s not a night worker, even when the lights are on in his study,” he said. “And in old age, all productivity is reduced — we notice that too.”

In the evenings, the Pope likes to watch the 8 o’clock evening news on television, switching between Italian and German programs. He will also regularly read L’Osservatore Romano “and other newspapers, even flipping through the pages of his old hometown paper.”

He is “very sensitive about the media,” his brother said, but, at the same time, he is aware of the origin of any attacks. “He usually knows what’s behind them. That makes it easier for him — and, of course, the enormous sympathy that he hears again and again also helps him.”

Msgr. Ratzinger firmly denied the Pope was ambitious. Rather, he said, the Holy Father has given 100% to whatever has been required of him. “He was always conscientious and has always carried out every burden placed on him to the best of his ability,” he said. “He has always had his doubts as to whether he had done really well what was required of him, that he had done it in the best possible way and been true to the trust that had been placed in him.”

And although the Pope was always convinced he had a “special talent to teach theology,” he never thought about achieving honors. “To him, they were always unsavory,” Msgr. Ratzinger said.

When he was elected Pope, his elder brother was dispirited, concerned that his younger sibling, to whom he has always been close, could fulfil such an immensely challenging ministry. Does he still feel the same way? “Not really,” he replied. “I’ve reconciled myself to the whole complex. Our contact changed because of it, that was clear. But whoever has this task, and has said Yes to it, must accept it.”

He said he has never had an elder-brother attitude with his younger sibling, having to keep him in line. “That was never the case with us,” he said. “I know that he is reasonable and responsible, and I also try to be so. It was always like this.”

And despite the loftiness and awesome responsibility of his little brother being Pope, Msgr. Georg still calls him “Joseph.” “Anything else” he said, “would be abnormal and awkward.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.