Joseph Ratzinger: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: Here, through his memoirs, is a glimpse of the early life of the man we now know as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

By Father John Jay Hughes

from Our Sunday Visitor, 5/8/2005

In 1998, while still prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger published a book of his memoirs from his childhood through his appointment as archbishop of Munich. Here, Father John Jay Hughes, an eminent Church historian, offers a glimpse of the early life of the man we now know as Pope Benedict XVI.

Driving through Alsace, France, with my beloved elderly stepmother several years ago, I turned off the road at a sign that read Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof. A short walk brought me to an immaculately tended German military cemetery. Rows of graves lay on a slope overlooking the Rhine, visible in the distance, with Germany beyond. The dates on the crosses revealed that few of the dead had lived much beyond their 21st birthday. I prayed for the fallen and for peace and returned to the car.

“You didn’t want to come,” I remarked to my stepmother.

“No,” she replied. “They’re the enemy.”

“Frances, dear,” I told her as kindly as I could. “We must be more compassionate. Most of them were just boys, caught up in the maelstrom of war.”

I recalled this exchange when I first read the account of a wartime experience by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, but then head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in his 1998 book, “Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977” (Ignatius, $12.95). In September 1944, as a 17-year-old schoolboy, he was drafted into a labor battalion commanded by fanatical Austrian “Old Nazis.”

“One night we were dragged out of our beds and lined up, still half-asleep, in our training suits,” writes the Pope. “An SS officer made each of us step forward individually. Taking advantage of our drowsiness, and by placing us on display before the whole troop, he tried to get us to ‘volunteer’ for the Waffen-SS. In this way a number of well-meaning comrades were pressed into service with this criminal gang. With a few others I was happy to be able to say that I intended to be a Catholic priest. Whereupon we were dismissed with withering scorn and abuse. How delicious these insults tasted, however. They were our deliverance from the menace of this mendacious ‘voluntary service’ with all its consequences.”

Drawn to the light

The youngest of three children, Joseph Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927 — Good Friday — in the southern Bavarian village of Martkl am Inn. He was baptized on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil, celebrated in those days in the morning.

“The more I think about it, the more fitting it seems that I was baptized on Easter Eve, not Easter,” he writes in his memoirs. “We live in this world not in the full light of Easter, but journeying toward that light, full of hope.”

Pope Benedict’s father was an officer in the state police. His hatred of the Nazis, whose brutal misconduct often made it necessary for him to intervene, made him a marked man even before Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933. A devout Catholic — as was his wife — the father would warn the local clergy when he knew they were under Nazi surveillance. He was relieved when he reached the age of 60 in 1937 and was able to retire.

Some years earlier, the family had moved to the town of Tittmoning, on the Austrian frontier. The parish priest there had the title of dean, and his curates were canons. “As was customary in capitular churches,” he writes, “the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in a side chapel, not in the tabernacle on the high altar.” One wonders what today’s self-styled traditionalists, who suppose that this ancient Catholic tradition is a novelty, will make of this information.

The Pope remembers pastoral letters defending Catholic schools against Nazi attacks. Even as a schoolboy, however, he was aware “at least dimly” that there was little point defending institutions if they were not staffed by committed believers. Some of his early teachers were fervent Catholics, others not. A talented younger teacher, an enthusiastic Nazi, tried to replace Christian festivals with pagan observances — Maypole and solstice celebrations — which he promoted as expressions of the authentic Germanic spirit, superior to the Church’s Jewish-Roman rites.

“Whenever I hear today critics in various parts of the world complaining that Christianity has supplanted native cultures and imposed European values, I am amazed at how familiar the arguments are, and even some of the terminology,” he comments. “Such arguments enjoyed little success with the stolid Bavarian farmers I knew in my youth. The younger generation was more interested in the sausages that hung from the Maypole, awaiting those who could climb fastest, than in the high-flown speeches of their Nazi schoolmaster.”

Despite such attempts to introduce novelties, village life in the early years of Nazi rule continued to revolve around the Church. Baptisms, church weddings and funerals were taken for granted, even by nominal Catholics. Reception of Communion was less frequent than it is today. But just about everyone went to confession before Easter. It is fashionable today, the Pope observes, to decry all that as formalism. But the sight of prosperous landowners lining up with their still-numerous maids and servants to kneel humbly in the confessionals represented a leveling of class differences that was certainly not without value.

Especially striking is Pope Benedict’s description of his early interest in the liturgy, celebrated even then with far greater congregational participation than was the case in English-speaking countries. With the help of German-Latin missals, he gained access to a world that fascinated him from the start.

“Penetrating the mysterious world of the liturgy which was celebrated at the altar in front of us was an exciting adventure,” he recalls. “I realized with increasing clarity that I was encountering something which had been created neither by an individual, by a great mind nor by Church officials. This mysterious tapestry of texts and actions had developed over centuries, out of the Church’s faith. It carried the fruit of history, yet it was more than the product of human history. Each century had left its mark. The explanations in the missal allowed us to see what was ancient, what medieval, and what was modern. Not everything was logical. Some things were jumbled. In places it was difficult to find one’s way. But despite all, it was a wonderful building, a spiritual home. . . . The inexhaustible reality of Catholic liturgy has been my companion through all the stages of my life.” Is it fanciful to expect that Pope Benedict XVI will show special interest in the enrichment and deepening of liturgical prayer that was desired by the Second Vatican Council, but not always achieved?

The road home

Hitler’s seizure of the Sudentenland in the autumn of 1938, on the pretext that its German inhabitants were being maltreated by the Czech government, was preceded by “a campaign of lies obvious even to the half-blind.” The Munich agreement, which sanctioned this act of aggression, “was clearly only a postponement, not a solution. My father could not understand how the French, whom he so admired, could swallow each of Hitler’s successive violations of international law as something almost normal.”

The attack on Poland in September 1939, “preceded by the same ritual staged before the Sudenten takeover,” was followed by the eerie quiet of the “phony war” and then by Hitler’s swift victories in Denmark and Norway, the Low Countries and France. “Even opponents of National Socialism experienced a kind of patriotic pride. . . . My father, however, saw with unblinking clarity that a victory for Hitler would be a victory not for Germany but for the anti-Christ, the beginning of apocalyptic times for all believers — and not only for them,” the Pope writes.

The repeated postponements of the loudly proclaimed invasion of Great Britain provoked “doubts and disquiet.” Pope Benedict XVI still remembers clearly the sunny June Sunday in 1941 on which Hitler attacked the Soviet Union:

“Our class had organized a boat trip on a nearby lake. This fresh expansion of the war hung over us like a nightmare, killing our joy. This could not turn out well. We thought of Napoleon. We thought of the endless expanses of Russia, which would surely swallow up the German attack.”

The future pope was now in a minor seminary. Classes became increasingly intermittent as the war intensified. The invasion of France by the Western allies in May 1944 “was a sign of hope for most of us. We had considerable trust in the Western powers whose sense of justice, we hoped, would help Germany to a new, peaceful existence.”

Released from the labor battalion at the end of November, the young seminarian enjoyed a few weeks at home before being drafted into an anti-aircraft battery in Munich. His greatest peril came in the days preceding Germany’s surrender in early May 1945. Taking advantage of the prevailing chaos, he made his way home, narrowly escaping the sentries posted at every crossroad with orders to shoot all “deserters” on sight. Once home, he found himself in even greater danger from two SS officers quartered in the family home, whose comrades had already hung from trees other young deserters. The two disappeared suddenly, without harming the young Joseph or his father, whose open denunciations of Hitler would have brought him immediate death only days before.

Later taken from his home by American soldiers for a six-week stay in a prisoner-of-war camp, young Joseph came home for good at the end of June 1945, just before sunset.

“The heavenly Jerusalem could not have looked more beautiful to me. It was the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I could hear singing and prayers from the church. . . . Never in my life have I tasted a more delicious meal than the modest supper Mother prepared for us from the fruits of our garden. . . . Weeks later my older brother appeared, brown from the Italian sun, and sat at the piano to play ‘Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.’ The months following, when we tasted once again our newfound freedom, are among the most beautiful memories of my whole life.”

For a better future

In January 1946, with his brother Georg and 120 other seminarians, he began studies for the priesthood in the Munich diocesan seminary. Their rector had spent five years as a prisoner in the nearby Dachau concentration camp. Thankful for a freedom they had not experienced for 13 years, the students, many of them hardened war veterans who looked askance at untested youngsters such as 19-year-old Joseph, threw themselves into their studies with enthusiasm.

“We were determined to make up for the lost years, to serve Christ in His Church for a new and better future, a better Germany, a better world,” he recalls in his memoirs. “None of us doubted that the Church was the proper object of our hopes. Despite its human weaknesses, the Church had withstood the Nazi onslaught. In the midst of the inferno which had devoured other powerful forces in society, the Church had remained steadfast with a strength not of this world. Christ’s promise had been fulfilled: the gates of hell had not prevailed. We knew what those gates looked like. We had seen them with our own eyes. But we saw too the house which had remained standing, because it was founded on rock.”

On the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in 1951, Joseph Ratzinger was ordained to the priesthood along with his older brother and more than 40 other men.

“It was a glorious summer day, an unforgettable high point of my life,” he recalls. “We should not be superstitious; but, at the moment the elderly archbishop laid his hands on me, a little bird — perhaps a lark — flew up from the high altar and trilled a little joyful song. And I could not but see in this a reassurance from on high, as if I heard the words: ‘This is good. You are on the right way.’ “ In the weeks following, the Ratzinger brothers celebrated Mass in the churches of their youth and blessed people in their homes.

“I learned firsthand how earnestly people wait for a priest, how much they long for the blessing that flows from the power of the sacrament,” he writes. “What could we two young men represent all by ourselves to the many people we were now meeting? In us they saw persons who had been touched by Christ’s mission and had been empowered to bring his nearness to men.”

Teaching religious ed

A year of pastoral ministry followed as curate in Munich. It would be Father Joseph Ratzinger’s sole experience of parish life, short but intense — 16 hours of religious instruction weekly in five school classes; two Sunday Masses with “two different sermons”; confessions from 6-7 a.m. each day and four hours on Saturday afternoon; several burials weekly in different cemeteries; and sole responsibility for the youth program, in addition to baptisms and weddings. He soon discovered how distant many children and young people were from the faith, and how little support they had at home.

Appointment to the faculty of the diocesan seminary in 1952 was Father Ratzinger’s entry into the world of academic theology that would be his home for the next quarter-century. Seven years later he became a professor in Bonn, the first of his three university chairs. He was soon in contact with the local archbishop, Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne. Despite the 40-year difference in age, the two men hit it off from the start. Cardinal Frings would take Father Ratzinger with him to all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council as his personal theologian.

The council took up liturgy first not because of widespread interest in the question, let alone demand for change — since World War I, liturgical reform was considered important, the cardinal writes, only in France, Germany and the Low Countries — but because no major controversy was expected in this area. None of the council fathers thought that Sacrosanctum Concilium (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”) was a “revolution” or the “end of the Middle Ages,” as subsequently claimed. In saying that “the liturgical books should be revised as soon as possible” (No. 25), the bishops envisioned the continuation of efforts since Popes Pius X and XII to focus more clearly on the mystery of Christ’s presence in His Church by returning to the classic simplicity of Roman traditions and eliminating accretions from the Baroque era and 19th-century devotional piety.

Cardinal Ratzinger concedes that a major revision of the Missal of Pius V and the introduction of the vernacular were right and proper. The new rite, made obligatory for the whole Latin Church by Pope Paul VI in 1969, “in many respects brought with it a real improvement and enrichment.” He deplores, however, the now-widespread idea that liturgy is subject to constant change, something we construct rather than something the Church gives to us.

Surprisingly, for a man who for years has insisted on submission of mind and will to all papal decisions, he has severely criticized Pope Paul VI for prohibiting use of the old missal. The move “introduced a breach into the history of the liturgy whose consequences could only be tragic,” he said. He does not deal with the reported reason for the Pope’s action: His fear that the existence of two different rites would prove divisive.

Tridentine fears

Claims by some present-day enthusiasts for the Tridentine rite that it alone is truly Catholic suggest that Pope Paul VI’s fear was well-founded. Pope Benedict XVI seems to be referring to the resulting polarization, however, when he writes that Vatican II must be understood “not as a breach, but as a stage of development; these things are urgently needed for the life of the Church. I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy. . .”

The Pope also criticizes the misreading of Dei Verbum (“Constitution on Divine Revelation”). He considers it one of the council’s outstanding texts, although one that has not yet been properly assimilated. Unlike the liturgical constitution, this document provoked sharp conciliar debate, centering on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition.

The Council of Trent had rejected the statement that the Church’s faith was found “partially in Scripture and partially in Tradition” in favor of the formulation that the faith was found in both. This gave rise, at Vatican II, to the claim that, in matters of faith, Scripture had “material completeness” — nothing could be taught as binding in faith that could not be found in Scripture.

Were this doctrine of “material completeness” to be accepted, he writes, it would mean that the final authority in matters of faith would belong to biblical exegetes. And since they would never agree — given the difficulty of the biblical texts and the presuppositions exegetes bring to their task – the Church’s faith would be subject to constant revision. “The drama of the postconciliar era has been largely determined by this catchword and its logical consequences,” he writes.

Revelation “is always greater than what can be contained in human words, greater even than the words of Scripture. . . . Scripture is the essential witness of revelation, but revelation is something alive, something greater and more,” he explains.

“Revelation has instruments; but it is not separable from the living God, and it always requires a living person to whom it is communicated. . . . [T]he living organism of the faith of all ages is then an intrinsic part of revelation. And what we call ’Tradition’ is precisely that part of revelation that goes above and beyond Scripture and cannot be comprehended within a code of formulas.”

While strongly affirming the council documents, the Pope deplores their unintended consequences. The worst, in his view, was the widespread impression since the council that everything in the Church is subject to revision.

Since it was no secret that the council fathers got their ideas — seemingly so different from the ones they had previously propagated at home — from theologians, this led to the idea that scholars should have the last word. This would remove them from the authority of the bishops. Closely linked with this misconception was another: the claim that since the Church was “the people of God,” as the council said in many places, the people were sovereign and could fashion the Church’s structure, liturgy and beliefs as they deemed best.

The Pope’s ordination as archbishop of Munich came on the eve of Pentecost, 1977. Since giving his inaugural lecture at Bonn 18 years previously, he had moved to the university of Münster, then to Tübingen (where he enjoyed, he says, a friendly relationship with his colleague Father Hans Küng, whom he would later bar from teaching as a Catholic theologian) and in 1969 to the newly founded university at Regensburg.

After the sudden death in July 1976 of Cardinal Julius Döpfner of Munich, then-Father Ratzinger heard rumors that he was being considered as his successor.

“I did not take them very seriously, because my limitations with regard to health were as well-known as my inability in matters of governance and administration. . . . I still did not think it was anything serious when [Archbishop Guido] Del Mestri, the apostolic nuncio, visited me in Regensburg under some pretext. We chatted about insignificant matters, and then finally he pressed a letter into my hand, telling me to read it and think it over at home. It contained my appointment as archbishop of Munich and Freising. I was allowed to consult my confessor on the matter. So I went to Professor [Johann] Auer, who had very realistic knowledge of my limitations, both theological and human. I surely expected him to advise me to decline. But to my great surprise he said without much reflection: ‘You must accept.’ I went back to the nuncio and again explained my reservations; but in the end, with him as my witness, I hesitantly wrote my acceptance on the stationery of the hotel where we were staying.”

Father John Jay Hughes , a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and a church historian, was a student of then-Father Ratzinger at the University of Tubingen in the mid-1960s.