A Family Lesson From the Ratzingers

Micael Hesemann Speaks of Compiling Georg’s Testimony in “My Brother, The Pope”

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PARIS, FEB. 27, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Speaking with Monsignor Georg Ratzinger revealed to Michael Hesemann two critical convictions: There is a family secret that explains something of the impressive trajectory lived by the two Ratzinger sons; and divine providence laid the foundations for Joseph’s path to the See of Peter before he was even born.

On Friday, ZENIT published an exclusive excerpt from “My Brother, the Pope,” Monsignor Georg Ratzinger’s story as told to Hesemann. Ignatius Press is releasing the English translation of the book this Thursday.

ZENIT asked Hesemann to tell us something of what he learned from his interviews with Monsignor Ratzinger. 

ZENIT: Describe your personal experience with Monsignor Ratzinger and the process of transcribing his memoirs?

Hesemann: When Benedict XVI was elected and announced he would come to Germany for the World Youth Day in Cologne, I was asked by one of my publishers to write a biography of the new Pope. Since I was only given two weeks for this project, I wasn’t able to do any in-depth research, but I had the idea one day to interview the most important witness for the most incredible German career of the 20th century — from a village policeman’s son to the spiritual leader of more than one billion Catholics — his brother Monsignor Georg Ratzinger. Still, it was just an idea and I was sure that sooner or later someone who was much closer to him would do that job and write a book with him. I waited and waited, but nothing happened. 

Then, six years later, I gave a workshop on Church history in a monastery near Regensburg, when a lady, representing the initiative “Germany pro Papa,” told me she was invited for tea-time at Georg Ratzinger’s house, if I would like to join her. Of course I accepted, since I always wanted to meet him. We had a nice afternoon, obviously the respect was mutual, and having found him a wonderful person and a great narrator, I frankly asked him if he would be willing to give me an interview. He agreed, even when I elaborated the idea that it could be “maybe for a small book,” and asked me to contact him again the next year, since it was two weeks before Christmas, when he would fly over to Rome to visit his brother, the Pope. 

We stayed in contact; he first wanted to undergo a knee operation, and when he recovered and felt good again, he agreed. So in May 2011, after an extensive preparation, I spent a whole week in Regensburg, his home town, meeting him in the mornings and afternoons, recording about 10 hours of a rather long and detailed interview. I got it transcribed, wrote the book and met again with him a month later, when I read the manuscript to him in another week-long session. I had to read it aloud, since Monsignor Ratzinger has only 10% vision, suffering from an age-related macular-degeneration (AMD) and simply can’t correct a written manuscript. After corrections and additions, the manuscript was printed out, before he flew to Rome for another meeting with his brother. We both had agreed to let Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, the Personal Secretary of the Holy Father, have the final verdict; only when he agreed, we would publish the book. By early July I had a very friendly “nihil obstat” from Monsignor Gaenswein, so the book went to press, just in time for the papal visit to Germany in September 2011. 

ZENIT: What is the most striking portion of the book from your perspective?

Hesemann: Honestly, what interested me most was the question of if there is something like a fingerprint of God in the Pope’s biography, some indication that divine providence played a role, or if he just by chance became the 265th Successor of St. Peter. What I found was a “red thread” going through all his life and beginning even further back in the past, long before his birth. His grandparents married in a pilgrim’s Church in Austria, where a century before the Virgin Mary performed a miracle when her image appeared in a window-glass. His parents met because his father advertised in the pilgrim’s newspaper of Altoetting, the most important Marian sanctuary of Bavaria. He was born on Holy Saturday, was baptized with the newly-consecrated holy water, only five miles away from Altoetting. And, what is even more important: He never had any ambitions after he became a priest. He was happy when he was a chaplain in a Munich parish, before he was called to teach at the seminary in Freising. He was happy to be a professor of theology, when he was called to participate in the Second Vatican Council. He wanted to teach, live and die in Regensburg; he even built a house there and transferred his parent’s tomb from Traunstein to Regensburg, when he was made the new archbishop of Munich by Pope Paul VI. He refused and resisted three times when John Paul II called him to Rome, until the Pope literally ordered him to come. So he was looking forward to his retirement, he wanted to write some more books and see his brother more often, when he was elected Pope, what he, in one of his first speeches, compared to an execution. He was literally dragged up the career latter until he reached the position that God has chosen for him!

ZENIT: Were there any parts of the book that it seemed were difficult for Monsignor Ratzinger to reveal?

Hesemann: Well, it was painful for Monsignor Georg Ratzinger to remember the tragic moments in their family life: The death of their beloved parents and their wonderful sister Maria, who literally sacrificed her life for Joseph, her youngest brother. At some moments, he literally had tears in his eyes, so deeply he was moved. It was obvious how much his family means for him.

ZENIT: What do you hope that readers take away from reading My Brother the Pope?

Hesemann: This book is not only an inspiration for young men who are called to the priesthood, but, first of all, a lesson for each and every one of us who lives in a family. We all know how many families split today, suffer from mistrust, discord, divorce. The Ratzinger family is a model for every family, since it was and still is just based on love and mutual respect. This family was so strong that it overcame all the turbulences of a troubled time indeed, even the terror of the Nazis and the brutality of World War II. They just resisted the “Zeitgeist”; they were obviously immune against the temptations and influences from outside. There is a secret recipe — you can call it the “Ratzinger family secret” — to understand how they achieved this, and this secret is twofold: their deep faith in God and their deep roots in the Catholic tradition. In the U.S. you say: “A family that prays together, stays together,” and that’s exactly what the Ratzingers prove is true. Of course they had all the problems every normal family has, like problems with different temperaments, little fights, worries, etc. But whatever problem they faced, they solved it in their prayer. They just placed it at the feet of Our Lady, when they prayed the rosary, they called Our Lord and the saints for help, and they received this help and support. Their love of God enriched and strengthened their love for each other; their prayer was their power-source. By attending the feasts of the Church, they sanctified their daily life, their whole year. And this is something every family can do. We all should re-discover the power of common prayer. We all should return to the Church, once again attend Holy Mass regularly, give attention to the feasts of the Church calendar. If we do this, if we indeed learn to pray together, if we spiritualize our family life, there will be no crisis, no fighting, no divorce. Try it! You have my guarantee it works!

This explains the biggest mystery of the Ratzinger family: How does it come about that rather simple parents, a country policeman, a kind of Bavarian sheriff, and a hotel cook, get two sons who are both geniuses of their own right: Georg Ratzinger as a world-famous choir-leader, musician and composer, who toured around the world fro
m Japan to the U.S. with his “Regensburger Domspatzen” (Regensburg Cathedral Boy Choir), and Joseph Ratzinger, first the greatest theologian of our time and now the Pope? Certainly their parents, who rather belonged to the lower middle-class, were not their main source of intellectual and artistic inspiration, but they guided them to the best, the most inspiring source: the Catholic Church! The beauty, the richness, the spirituality and the teachings of the Church stimulated the minds of both of them and triggered their artistic and intellectual aspirations. What greater gift can parents offer their children than the richness of the Christian faith, the inspiring beauty of our Church? 

ZENIT: How have you been impacted by this unprecedented experience?

Hesemann: Honestly, the weeks I was allowed to work with Monsignor Ratzinger on this book belong to the most beautiful ones of my life. I had not only the chance to learn more about the traditions, the richness and beauty of the Bavarian Catholicism (not being Bavarian, but Rhinish myself), but first of all I experienced a man who lives and personifies the best of our Catholic faith. Georg Ratzinger is one of the most wonderful, warm-hearted, generous, humble and kind persons I have ever been able to meet in my life, and I will always treasure the privilege that I had of meeting him and working with him on this book. 

Since I had the honor to meet the Holy Father several times, I can assure you that in this aspect they are very similar — humble, even a little bit shy, kind and warm-hearted. It is always fascinating to see how the Holy Father unites the simple, down-to-earth rural faith of his childhood with his theological genius in such a harmonic way. This makes him special, even unique. Benedict XVI is both, a man of deep-rooted faith and a brilliant intellectual, one of the greatest minds of our time. After the great missionary John Paul II, the Church needed a teacher, someone who enforces its foundations. Working on this book helped me to understand him better by learning about his roots, and I am sure my readers will have the same experience. You will understand why he is the right man at the right time for the See of St. Peter, the magisterium of the Catholic Church, indeed chosen by divine providence.

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Excerpt from “My Brother, the Pope”: www.zenit.org/article-34358?l=english

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