The Man and His LifeROBERT MOYNIHAN
Though he was a familiar Church leader for many years before becoming pope, there has been little awareness of the spiritual side of Benedict XVI. Now for the first time readers are given a brilliant overview of the Popeís most inspirational teachings in Let Godís Light Shine Forth.
– Pope Benedict XVI, conversation with Robert Moynihan, February 23, 1993
“The Presence of God”
On April 19, 2005, in Rome, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, at age 78, was chosen by the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church to be the 265th successor of the apostle Peter, bishop of Rome and head of the universal Church. The world was genuinely astonished. Why? In large measure, because they were surprised that a group of cardinals representing places like Argentina, Nigeria, and India had not chosen a younger, more “progressive” cardinal from the Third World to “reform” and “modernize” traditional Christian doctrines and emphasize issues of social justice. Instead, they had chosen an elderly German cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, who, over the previous quarter century as head of the Vatican’s chief doctrinal ofﬁce (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), had earned a reputation for defending the traditional teachings of the Church and for emphasizing the priority of the “right worship” of God in any effort to build a just human society.
How did this happen? Why did it happen? What does it mean?
Over the past 30 years, not only the cardinals who elected Ratzinger as Pope, but many Catholics, and other men and women of good will around the world, have come to agree with Benedict that the greatest “crisis” facing the Church and the world is “the absence of God” — a culture and way of life without any transcendent dimension, without any orientation toward eternity, toward the sacred, toward the divine. And that the “solution” to this “crisis” is quite simply to express in a phrase: the world needs “the presence of God.”
Benedict had long argued that the “absence of God” in the modern world, the “secularization” of modern “globalized” society, has created a society in which the human person no longer has any sure protection against the depredations of power or, more importantly, any clear understanding of the meaning and ultimate destination of his life.
Yet his call to reorient human culture toward God has never meant an abandonment of the search for social justice. Rather, it has always been a challenge to place that search within the Christian context of repentance and belief in the Gospel.
Benedict’s focus on the “priority” of knowing and loving God before doing anything else whatsoever was seen by the vast majority of the college of cardinals as the right focus.
Benedict was elected by his fellow cardinals, including many from very poor countries, because they agreed with him about the need for a Pope who could preach the priority of God, and in so doing, lay the only secure foundation for a just society.
In understanding the vision of Benedict XVI, we begin not by examining his many theological works formulated over the past 50 years, but by listening as he himself describes his own beginning. His words, based on several interviews from 1993 to 1995 and also on his autobiography (published in 1998 as Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977), reveal a man who sees the world and everyday life with a sense of wonder, as if all things are crisscrossed with hints or “traces” of God.
Indeed, this is ultimately Benedict’s great message: that the world is a sacrament — an “outward sign” of the “inward reality” of God’s love, and that man will only be happy when he recognizes the primacy of God in his own life and in the entire world.
Benedict’s conviction that creation is joyful insofar as it is oriented toward God began in his childhood in Bavaria, where Catholicism and everyday life were interwoven. The root of that conviction is seen in his early and deep appreciation for the liturgy, the ritual celebration of the Christian mysteries using the symbolism of everyday life — water, wine, bread, light and darkness.
It is evident in his love for the simple life of the Bavarian countryside, which he speaks of fondly as one of the happiest periods of his life; in his appreciation for the simple men and women of faith; in his rejection of Nazis, whose inhumane violence he saw as the fruit of their ideological rejection of God; in his later life, when as a theological advisor at the Second Vatican Council his desire to make the wonder of God more accessible and visible to more people earned him a reputation as a “progressive”; in his 25 years as Prefect of the Church’s doctrinal ofﬁce, where he labored to protect the wonder and beauty of God from being encrusted and hidden under theologies of relativism, atheist Marxism, and secularism.
Ultimately it is evident in his ﬁrst homilies as Pope Benedict XVI, as he called on all men and women, both in and out of the Church, to “seek God’s face,” traveling along with him on the journey that leads to an eternal home, where God is entirely present, and so true joy is everlasting.
From Marktl to Freising
“My earliest memory really goes back to Marktl, and this is the only memory I have of this earliest period in my life. I must have been just two years old, because we moved away from Marktl when I was two. In our house we were on the second ﬂoor, and on the ground ﬂoor there was a dentist, and this person had a motor car — something that was still rather rare at that time, at least in Bavaria. And the smell of the gasoline from this car is what I remember.” With a laugh, he added, “I was deeply impressed by that.”
Pope Benedict XVI was born on April 16, 1927, in the little town of Marktl am Inn, in the Bavarian diocese of Passau, in southern Germany. He was born as the third child of Joseph and Maria Ratzinger, after siblings Georg and Maria.
In that year, April 16 fell on Holy Saturday, the “silent time” in the Christian liturgy between the sorrow of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday.
“I was baptized on the morning after my birth with water just blessed during the Easter vigil. My family often remarked on this; being the ﬁrst baby to be baptized with this new water was an important sign.”
One senses the underlying “genetic code” of Benedict’s spiritual life in this intimate union of everyday life and the life of faith: his birth precedes his baptism by only a few hours; his family is always present, reminding him during his childhood that he was the ﬁrst to be baptized in the new holy water, inculcating in him the sense of his dignity and uniqueness — a chief task of all parents, brothers and sisters; and his faith, woven into the fabric of everyday life. “The faith penetrated all of life, though not everyone was a serious, believing Catholic. In the countryside and small towns, no one yet could, or even wished, to step outside the fabric of Catholic life, of Christian life.”
Faith and family have remained the twin poles of Benedict’s consciousness throughout his life. First, family: his memoirs show him always eager to return to his parents’ house, to go on long walks with his mother and father, to live “in family” or “as a family” as often and as long as possible. Indeed, his parents would come to live with him when he took his ﬁrst university teaching job. “I always remember, with great affection, the goodness of my father and mother.” His sister, Maria, who never married, would become his housekeeper, keeping the Ratzinger family together even in Rome, until her death — which was devastating for Benedict — in November 1991. Benedict also spends much of his summer vacation in the company of his brother, Georg, a priest who is a musicologist and the director of the cathedral choir in Regensburg, Germany.
Then the other pole: faith. “I have always been grateful for the fact that my life was from the very beginning immersed in the Paschal mystery, since it could not be seen as anything but a sign of benediction. Of course, my birth was not on Easter Sunday, but Holy Saturday. And yet, the more I reﬂect, the more it seems characteristic of our human existence, which still awaits Easter, is still not in full light, but conﬁdently sets out toward the light.”
The simplicity of these words reveals a key point in Benedict’s thinking: that the faith of the simple, common people is often the purist kind.
Not far from Marktl am Inn, where he was born, is the Marian sanctuary of Altoetting, which dates back to Carolingian times (the ninth century). When Benedict was a boy, the simple friar Conrad of Parzham, who had been a doorman at the sanctuary, was beatiﬁed. “In this man, humble and kind, we saw incarnated the best of our people, led by the faith to realize its very highest possibilities. Later, I would often reﬂect on this extraordinary circumstance, that the Church, in the century of progress and of faith in science, saw herself best represented precisely by the most simple persons, like Bernadette of Lourdes or Brother Conrad.”
The annual cycle of worship in prayer, which, in the Catholic Church, is called the “liturgical year,” also made a deep impression on young Benedict. As the seasons changed from winter to spring to summer to fall, so the Church festivals changed, from Lent to Easter to Pentecost to Christmas, providing everyday life with a different, deeper dimension. “The liturgical year gave to time its rhythm, and I perceived this fact from the time I was an infant, yes, from the time I was an infant, with great joy.”
For Christmas, the family manger scene grew larger each year, and the sometimes gray and melancholy days of German winter were brightened by the Advent liturgies: “They were celebrated at dawn, the church still dark, illuminated only by candles.”
His recollection of his childhood Easters reveals the extent to which Benedict’s faith sprang out of a rich fabric of Christian symbolism, still almost “baroque” in comparison with post—Vatican II liturgy introduced in the 1960s: “For all of Holy Week, the windows of the church were covered by black coverings. Even in daytime, the church was shrouded in a darkness dense with mystery. But the instant the parish priest sang out the verse that announced ‘He is Risen!’ the coverings were suddenly pulled back from the windows and a radiant light ﬂooded into the entire church: it was the most impressive representation of the resurrection of Christ I can imagine.”
Life was peaceful in Marktl, and in the other area towns where the family lived during the 1930s. His father was a police ofﬁcer and his mother “an excellent cook.”
“My mother was a professional cook before she married,” he said, smiling at the recollection. “In the last years before she was married she worked in a hotel in Munich where the cooks each had an area of specialization. She was a specialist in mehlspeiss. Do you know what that is? It is something that exists only in Austria and Bavaria. They are pastries made with ﬂour and cream, not like the Italian pasta, but sweet. Apfel strudel and things like that. Apfel strudel is the only item that has spread more or less around the world, but we have many choices of this type. An extraordinary abundance! And we loved these mehlspeissen very much. Beyond that, we were, of course, quite poor, and she had to do what she could to feed a family of ﬁve people. Usually we ate a little beef, some salad, vegetables...
“I lived in a small town with people who work in agriculture and handicrafts, and there I feel most at home.”
With the coming of Nazism, German attitudes toward the Church’s role in everyday life began to change. “The fanatics, naturally, left the Church and openly opposed the Church.” But not everyone became a Nazi. Indeed, many did not. “I would say, those fanatics who explicitly declared that they were anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, were, in the rural areas, quite few. Many people were, as we say in German, “mitlaufer” (“going along”), no? People who did what was necessary without being very committed personally, and at the same time continued to go to Church, continued to take part in this religious life which was so much a part of the everyday fabric of rural German life at the time, so much so that it was unimaginable that one would not take part.
“But there was also a committed Catholic group that lived a committed Catholic life. And, just as the fanatics were a minority, so too were the members of this group. They were deeply committed Christians, and so were profoundly opposed to the regime.”
The family moved to Tittmunning, then to Aschau, then to Traunstein, a little city in the foothills of the Alps. These relocations were directly related to young Benedict’s father’s resistance to Nazism, which resulted in demotions and transfers in his work as a police ofﬁcer. “Our father was a bitter enemy of Nazism because he believed it was in conﬂict with our faith,” the Pope’s brother, Georg, has said.
“Tittmunning was a lovely little town with a certain history, because it belonged to the archdiocese of Salzburg. A beautiful town. Even in the 1500s, it was the point of departure for a movement of Church reform, a reform of the clergy. And the effects could be felt down even to our century, because the reform had established the common life of the clergy, and this remained the practice in that region, that the parish priests and assistant parish priests lived a common life.
“It was a very small town, only 3,000 inhabitants, but very lovely. And here I have some very clear memories, both of Church life and of nature, but especially of Church life. “There were two large, beautiful churches. The parish church had a chapter and in the other church, which had belonged to the Augustinian canons, there were nuns. And in both churches there was lovely music, the churches were very beautiful...but my most vivid memories were the celebrations of Christmas and Holy Week.”
Order Let God's Light Shine Forth here.
Robert Moynihan, "The Man and His Life." in Let God's Light Shine Forth, (New York: Doubleday, 2005).
Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Robert Moynihan is founder and editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, a monthly journal on Church and world affairs from Rome. He is regarded as one of the world’s leading Vatican analysts and has interviewed Pope Benedict XVI more than twenty times. He received his Ph.D. in medieval studies from Yale University and divides his time between Rome and Annapolis, Maryland. He is married and has two sons, Christopher, fifteen, and Luke, twelve, who are both excellent soccer players.
© 2005 Robert Moynihan
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