The Fruitful Witness of the Family of Pope Benedict XVI
Eighty-nine years ago tomorrow, in the early morning of Holy Saturday 1927, Joseph Ratzinger was born in a small town in Bavaria, Germany. That same day, he was reborn in Jesus Christ – the first baby baptized in the newly-blessed waters of Easter. “I have always been filled with thanksgiving for having had my life immersed in this way in the Easter mystery, since this could only be a sign of blessing,” he would later say in his memoirs (Milestones, 8). Within this blessing, we must include his parents Mary and Joseph.
The Christian family is a domestic Church where children first encounter love and faith, affirms Pope Francis in his recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In a particular way, beginning with the witness of parents, the family is the everyday place to encounter the Lord and thus is a school of the Gospel and authentic humanity. It is here where faith is first planted and where it grows, instilling in children the virtues of hope and love for God and one another.
This is the vocation of every family and as we confront the challenges of today, we can look to the example of the Ratzinger family to see how the simple expression of love and fidelity to God and to each other in the acts of daily life can bear abundant fruit. In addition to young Joseph going on to become a priest and eventually Pope Benedict XVI, his older sister and brother, Maria and Georg, each entered religious life and the priesthood respectively.
Joseph and Mary Ratzinger, who married late in life, each came from modest backgrounds and their family home was also humble and frugal, for which the future pontiff was thankful, saying in an interview, “For thereby joys are made possible that one cannot have in wealth” (Salt of the Earth, 44). The family was rich, however, in faith. Although simple, focusing on prayer and the liturgy, their Catholic faith nevertheless informed their entire way and view of life.
Pope Benedict’s mother, he recalls, “was very warm-hearted and had great inner strength,” while his father “was a reflective believer” whose religion was convincing to him (Id.). His father’s “simple power to convince came out of his inner honesty. So his attitude became a model for us, even though it stood against what had public currency at the time” (Id., 51). These attributes would live on in the gentle caring and kindness of their youngest son throughout his life.
This foundation of faith was greatly needed because the Holy Father also learned as a boy what it was like to live in a society that sought to exclude God and marginalize those who believe in him. Throughout his childhood, he witnessed and experienced personally the dark night of evil presented by the Nazi regime: As Christianity began to be denounced throughout Germany, informants spied on priests and reported those who behaved as so called “enemies” of the Reich. The ideology of the Nazis was imposed on the Catholic schools and teachers who opposed the regime were replaced by younger ones who defended it. As an altar boy, the Pope Emeritus had watched the brownshirts beat up his parish priest, and a cousin with Down syndrome was taken away to be killed in a euthanasia program for “undesirables.”
In the face of these horrors, the teenaged Joseph was “full of hope for the great things that were gradually opening up to me in the boundless realm of the spirit” (Milestones, 29). Thus, when roused out of bed to be confronted by an officer of the notorious SS, at a time when thousands of priests were imprisoned in concentration camps, he could be resolute in telling him that he intended to become a Catholic priest (Id., 33).
What allowed Pope Benedict to endure during these ominous times, and what prepared him for the years to come was the blessing of faith his family had nurtured in him. “Despite many human failings, the Church was the alternative to the destructive ideology of the brown rulers; in the inferno that had swallowed up the powerful, she had stood firm with a force coming to her from eternity,” he attested. “From our own experience we now knew what was meant by ‘the gates of hell,’ and we could also see with our own eyes that the house built on rock had stood firm” (Id., 42).
While in our own families, parents might not raise a child to become pope, still they can prepare their children to live holy lives in the world, with the hope and fortitude to face life’s many challenges, and to someday be saints in heaven. With the witness of faith, with the simple practices of praying before and after meals, reading Scripture and attending Mass together, while fostering knowledge of and friendship with Jesus and caring for one another, families realize their vocation to be a civilization of love – and this can renew the world.