Georg Ratzinger “was a man who hid his brilliance and greatness behind his even greater humility. A kind soul, a true gentleman, so warm-hearted and friendly to everyone, with a wonderful, charming, typical Bavarian mischievous sense of humor…”
Benedict’s famous older brother, who returned to his Heavenly homeland on July 1, and whose funeral will be celebrated at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Regensburg this Wednesday, July 8th, could not be explained with more clarity or more personally, than by his co-author, in the interview-book ‘My Brother, the Pope,’ by Michael Hesemann.
Here, Dr. Hesemann sheds much light on the dear German older brother.
Zenit’s Senior Vatican correspondent was able to meet and speak with Monsignor Georg Ratzinger years ago at his home in Regensburg. The courteous, gracious, gentle, brilliant German gentleman humbly conveyed welcome and kind regards for all people of good will.
(The encounter shown below actually fell on a Fourth of July, for which he especially gave holiday wishes to Americans celebrating their national holiday)
Please note that all photos featured here, unless demonstrating otherwise, were all courtesy of Dr. Hesemann.
Here is ZENIT’s exclusive interview with Dr. Hesemann:
ZENIT: How did you first get to know Monsignor Georg Ratzinger?
Dr. Michael Hesemann: In 2009, when the attacks on Pope Benedict XVI started, we founded an association to defend him and called it “Germany pro Papa”. Our Regensburg representative, Roswitha Biersack, kept Georg Ratzinger informed about all our activities and eventually, in December 2010, introduced me to him. I can say that I loved him from the very first moment: He was the wise, gentle, humorous elderly gentleman we all wished to know. I brought him some of my books, he checked with his brother and eventually he trusted me. When I realized what a brilliant memory he had and how good he was in telling stories from his life, I said to myself: This is something we have to preserve for the world, for the future. This is how the project of our common book “My Brother, the Pope” was born. He was 86 at that time, in rather good health and best spirits, and the time was just ripe.
ZENIT: What struck you most about him?
Dr. Michael Hesemann: He was a man who hid his brilliance and greatness behind his even greater humility. A kind soul, a true gentleman, so warm-hearted and friendly to everyone, with a wonderful, charming, typical Bavarian mischievous sense of humor. At the same time, he was down to Earth and much more extroverted than his rather shy brother. He loved to have people around him, his house sometimes resembled a beehive, with visitors in the morning and afternoon. Many of his former Regensburg Cathedral Choir Boys (“Regensburger Domspatzen”) stayed in contact with him for decades, visited him regularly as if he became a member of their family and came to help him when he was nearly blind and unable to walk. They read books for him, they wrote letters for him or just came to talk and enjoy a coffee, tea and a piece of cake which was always offered in his house. He really changed their lives and became an inspiration for so many. So, he indeed left a big family of friends and students behind.
ZENIT: Dr. Hesemann, please tell us a little bit about Msgr. Georg Ratzinger. For instance, what were some of his hobbies, favorites, priorities, hopes…
Dr. Michael Hesemann: Although he was nearly blind, he was extremely well-informed about so many new books and publications, because he had his volunteer readers and a brilliant memory. You could really talk with him about everything, from Church-matters over policy up to football. But his great love, of course, was music. I think the best birthday gift I ever made to him was when I invited a good friend, the world-famous pianist Anastassiya Dranchuk, to play for him. We repeated that on his next names day and his last birthday. His weakness were sweets and I always brought him cookies and cakes, but most he liked Christmas cookies. Generally, Christmas was very important for him and I once, in a laudatio given on his 90th birthday which we celebrated in the Vatican, I called him “a christmassy person”.
He was born on January 15, which was still in the Christmas season and as we all know, Christmas was the birth not only of Christ, but also of the Church music: It was when the angels sung their “Hallelujah” in Bethlehem. So, the “spirit of Christmas” influenced his life, work and vocation and it was no coincidence that his most successful CD with the “Regensburger Domspatzen” was the one with German Christmas Chorales; nearly every German family has it at home. This also reflected his upbringing in a very pious family which really celebrated the feasts of the Church in the most solemn way, which prayed the rosary together every day, kneeling on the hard kitchen floor and, since it prayed together always stayed together in good and in bad times.
ZENIT: What was his relationship with his brother, Joseph Ratzinger, who, if I may, refer to as Benedict?
Dr. Michael Hesemann: A deep, brotherly love. The Ratzingers were always a very close, loving, caring family. The siblings got even closer when their parents died in the 1960s; their older sister Maria became the housekeeper, secretary and assistant of Joseph Ratzinger and Georg went to Regensburg as Musical Director of the Regensburg Cathedral, “Domkapellmeister”. But they regularly met, celebrated the feasts together and visited the parent’s grave which they transferred to Regensburg. In 1969, when Joseph Ratzinger received the call from Regensburg University and from now on taught dogmatics there, begun the happiest time of their adult life, since all three siblings were united again. Unfortunately, the Lord had other plans. In 1977, Joseph Ratzinger became Archbishop of Munich and Freising and had to move, and in 1983, Pope John Paul II called him to Rome as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. In 1991, Maria Ratzinger passed away, which only strengthened the bond between the two siblings who remained. They were so much looking forward to being together again after Joseph Card. Ratzinger’s retirement. Cardinal Ratzinger kept his house in Regensburg for all those years, to come there for vacations, to meet his brother and to have a place to stay after retirement from Rome. But once again, the Lord had other plans.
And, believe me, for Georg Ratzinger the election of Benedict XVI first of all was a shock. All common plans they were looking forward to were smashed once and for all. For a whole day he was unable to go to the phone, so frustrated he was. Thank God they found a way to stay close. They spoke nearly every day on the phone and Georg visited his brother in Rome about four times a year, the last time in January 2020. He wanted to come again in late March 2020, but the Corona crisis prevented it. So, it was a blessing that at least Pope Benedict was able to come and say farewell, two weeks ago.
ZENIT: What are some memories of what they used to do together? Some anecdotes?
Dr. Michael Hesemann: He was brilliant in telling anecdotes, always reflecting his warm humor. And there are hundreds of photos of sightseeing trips they made together. This had a long tradition for them. In the Middle of World War II, in 1941, when because of the War no international audience came to the world-famous Salzburg Classical Music Festival, he managed to buy several cheap tickets and both brothers made the trip on their bicycles, spending the nights in a small hotel. Georg was 17 at that time, Joseph just 14! Indeed, this trip became providential. Joseph discovered his love for Mozart and became the “Mozart of theology.” Georg saw, for the very first time, the legendary “Regensburger Domspatzen”, the Regensburg Cathedral Boy Choir and fell in love with them. Twenty-three years later, he became their Musical director!
Another beautiful story which he tells in our book was when the war was over and he returned from the American POW-Camp; Joseph, who was too young to become a soldier, had already arrived at their parents home earlier. On this day, after a very brief greeting, Georg just marched into the house, sat down at the piano and started to play the Te Deum. Then all of them started to cry and hugged each other.
But besides those highlights in their lives, there was their daily lives which which were so normal and down-to-earth, in spite of their prominence. Even when Joseph Ratzinger was already Cardinal and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and Georg Ratzinger a musical genius celebrated by the world, they were just two ordinary brothers when they met: Georg was cooking, Joseph washed the dishes afterwards. Once again, greatness hiding behind humility! Just keep in mind, that only in the last 15 years of his life, Georg Ratzinger was “the Pope’s brother”. For a long time, at least until 1977, Georg was much better known. At this time, Joseph Ratzinger was sometimes called “the little brother of the famous Musical Director”. Even after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope, his brother Georg used to call him “Joseph”. “Anything else would not be natural”, he told me. He was so much down to Earth, when his soul reached out to heaven. But to summarize, they always were “one heart and one soul”, as we say in German, and Georg, as the older one and the first who had the vocation to become a priest, was the role model of his younger brother Joseph.
ZENIT: What about some memories with their parents?
Dr. Michael Hesemann: 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. As I said before, 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.
They got all their inspiration from the richness of the Bavarian Catholic Culture, a culture which gave birth to Mozart and so many other geniuses, because its beauty and richness reflects the beauty and magnificence of heaven. At the same time, 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 these turbulent times, made them immune against the blasphemous Nazi ideology and caused their vocation. Interestingly, both brothers were, each in their way, a synthesis of their parents: The strict, perfectionist police officer who also had a gentle side, a great love for music and a deep faith, and the hard-working, loving and caring mother who was not only a beautiful (as photos show) but also just a wonderful, warm-hearted woman.
ZENIT: When Georg used to visit the Vatican what did their time consist of?
Dr. Michael Hesemann: Georg Ratzinger had his own room in the Monastery Mater Ecclesiae and a sister who took care for him. Their day started with the highlight, the Holy Mass they celebrated together. They had breakfast, lunch and dinner together and in between prayed together, played or listened to music together, talked with each other and in the evening, they sometimes watched TV. It was a quiet, harmonic time and Georg Ratzinger was always looking forward to go there and be with his brother. But at the same time, he never wanted to move there. He loved Regensburg and Bavaria, he enjoyed the freedom and the regular visits by his friends. He found a home which he never wanted to give up. And, be sure, Pope Benedict envied him. He always missed his beloved, beautiful Bavaria, its green meadows, its colorful flowers on the balcony of the houses, its mountains, its people, its baroque monasteries and medieval cities. Who ever visited Bavaria will fully understand that. Nowhere in the world you are closer to heaven!
ZENIT: Why did Benedict go to visit his brother recently?
Dr. Michael Hesemann: To say a last farewell. In January, Georg Ratzinger had been to Rome for the last time. The next trip was planned for March, but was impossible due to the Corona crisis. In January, we all celebrated his 96th birthday and he was just in great shape. He had his ups and downs, but this is normal in this age. But then came the weeks and months of isolation. Of course, he had his housekeeper, a wonderful sister, but not the five to ten visitors a day which kept him young. Around Pentecost he started to feel weak, his heart gave him trouble. When the situation became serious, his brother decided that he had to act. For all his life Pope Benedict regretted that he was unable to be with his beloved sister when she died in 1991, because he was sick himself at that time. This time he knew he could not wait too long. So he decided, more or less from one day to the other, to come. He was in Regensburg for four days and spent many hours in the morning and late afternoon with his brother. They talked, celebrated the Holy Mass together, prayed together or just held their hands. It gave both of them so much. When you see pictures of Pope Benedict when he arrived and when he left, it’s like he rejuvenated. The tension had gone, he smiles. He knew it was their last encounter in this world. But he also felt his brother would go in peace now. So, they gave a wonderful testimony of both, brotherly love and Catholic trust in God and eternal life. They knew, they were confident, that their next reunion is in heaven, where all the burden of this material existence is gone and they both will live in the eternal joy of the presence of God.
ZENIT: How has Monsignor Georg’s prayer life prepared him for a return to his heavenly home?
Dr. Michael Hesemann: Even in his high age, his prayer life was intense. Until he became physically too weak, he used to celebrate the Holy Mass every morning, originally in St. Johann, a small Church just next to the large, gothic Regensburg Cathedral, then in his private chapel in his house. Together with his dear housekeeper, Sister Laurente, he prayed the rosary and the hourly prayer. He also loved to listen to musica sacra, just to get an idea of heavenly beauty. Music, as I said before, is the language of the angels and he spoke this language very well. In the last weeks, he contemplated all his life in an intense way and prepared for what he called the “heavenly exam”. I am confident he passed it easily with the brilliance, charm and sense of humor he always had. We who were privileged to meet him, will always remember him with gratitude as a man with a golden heart. For all his life, he inspired people to search for God in the beauty of music. Now he himself sings in the heavenly choirs. He went the way he showed and prepared for so many and receives his divine reward.