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The Pope and the Monsignor | An Interview with Monsignor Michael R. Schmitz

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Monsignor Michael R. Schmitz was ordained by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1982. As a German who has had significant contact with Pope Benedict XVI, IgnatiusInsight.com asked Msgr. Schmitz his opinion of the effect of our new pope on Germany. For Germany, we wondered, will this be a time of hope and renewal of faith?

Msgr. Schmitz, 47, is a German, born and educated, but now serves as the U.S. Provincial Superior of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. Msgr. Schmitz oversees the U.S. branch of this new order of priests devoted to the Traditional Latin Mass. As a priest studying in Rome, he had regular contact with his fellow countryman Cardinal Ratzinger. During the year prior to his election as pope, Msgr. Schmitz and several others from his order met with Cardinal Ratzinger to bring him up to date on the new order of priests. (More biographical information is available at the end of this interview.)

Our thanks to IgnatiusInsight.com contributor and Ignatius Press marketing assistant Milo Persic for this interview.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What have been your relations to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI?

Msgr. Schmitz:
I had the great honor to have been ordained by the present pope in 1982 when he was in his first year as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Since that time I had the opportunity to meet the Cardinal quite regularly during my studies for the doctorate in Rome when I was living in the Teutonic College in the Vatican. His Eminence used to celebrate Mass every Thursday in the chapel of the college and have breakfast with us afterwards, which was the occasion of short conversations and encounters with him.

Also, I had the chance to meet him several times in audiences and only recently, during the year before his election, he received the Prior General of the Institute of Christ the King, Msgr. Gilles Wach, and me for a meeting where we could present to him the more recent developments of our young community. During this occasion the Cardinal again showed his interest and love for all matters liturgical and especially his deep respect for the more ancient forms of the Roman Rite.

IgnatiusInsight.com: This pope is the first from Germany in more than 400 years. Could you share any personal feelings that you had upon learning of the outcome of the Conclave

Msgr. Schmitz:
As everyone else was, I was deeply touched by the outcome of the last Conclave because it witnessed the presence of the Holy Spirit during the election of a new Pope. Holy Providence does not leave the Church alone and astonishes ever anew all those who may depend in their judgment about the future on purely human calculation.

Certainly, Benedict XVI is a gift of Holy Providence and shows through his very presence as Vicar of Christ that "the Church is alive", as he has put it himself in his sermon during the solemn beginning of his ministry. The fact that he is German is important for all Germans, but I would stress that Germany is much more regionally structured than non-Germans would believe. Germany was united under Prussia in 1870, and its kingdoms and principalities only disappeared totally after 1918, which afterwards created a vacuum used by evil forces to deceive the German faithfulness toward authority. Still, the former political structure is very present in the different regions of Germany, whose population speaks many different forms of the German language.

One of the most important regions in Germany is the "Freistaat" of Bavaria. Together with being a German, His Holiness is a Bavarian and has always shown a great love for his country. He was Archbishop of Munich in Bavaria, and he taught as a professor in Bavarian universities for many years. His brother conducted one of the most important church choirs in Bavaria, and the links of the Ratzinger family to its Bavarian-Austrian roots are very visible. I am from the Rhine Valley and traditionally, the ecclesiastic principalities on the Rhine, especially the Archdiocese of Cologne, have always been in close relationship with Bavaria.

For centuries Bavarian princes governed, as Prince-Archbishops, the part of the Rhine I come from. The Rhine Valley and Bavaria are among the only regions in Germany that have always stayed Catholic. The atmosphere of the two regions and their historical links are penetrated by a deeply Catholic feeling. Also, for this reason, I was very grateful to Holy Providence for having given to Holy Mother Church a visible head and a Vicar of Christ rooted in a Catholicism of heart and mind coming from a rich tradition of faithfulness to the Holy See and of veneration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Virgin Mary.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In difficult years following the First World War, Germany saw the rise of Hitler and every generation since has had to live with the legacy of one of history’s most evil men. Germany culture in the post World War II era was forced to grapple with this shameful period. What will the election of a German and obviously holy man, who was alive during the time of Hitler, who himself quietly resisted Hitler, as did his father, do to Germans’ perceptions of themselves in general and on the world stage?

Msgr. Schmitz:
I am confident that Pope Benedict XVI will help other people to perceive Germany and the Germans in a more appropriate way than just as a nation whose history was partly dominated by shameful oppression through an inhuman dictatorship.

My grandfather was killed during the war in a train accident because his chauffeur did not see the coming train at a crossing, whose lights were off during the time of the air raids. Our parish priest said to my grandmother "perhaps Holy Providence wanted to spare your husband because he certainly would have ended in a concentration camp".

My grandfather helped many Jews and others who were persecuted by the Nazi regime and always defended his faith openly. My mother secretly copied the famous sermons of the upright "Lion of Muenster" Bishop Clemens August Count von Galen against the Nazi terror. One morning she entered her office and found two Gestapo members sitting on her desk. They took her to be interrogated, and only the mercy of an elderly judge who pitied her youthful beauty saved her from the worst.

I tell you these episodes of my family only as examples of the many Catholic Germans who opposed the regime and suffered dire consequences for their faithfulness to the Church. My generation and those after me have not known this time personally nor are we responsible for anything that happened then. I am sure His Holiness, who was elected by an international College of Cardinals, will help convey to the world the message that no nation should be the target of a collectively assigned culpability and that we have to see the individual person and his personal value before we condemn him for his national origin.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Germany is perhaps one of the most secularized countries in the world. The rates of church attendance are low, below 30 percent, and many Germans no longer value the three K’s, Kinder, Küche, Kirche. Will Benedict XVI make a difference?

Msgr. Schmitz:
Europe as a whole is secularized to the point that its political authorities seem to be afraid to acknowledge the Christian roots of its civilization. This behavior could be compared to a child denying his mother in her very presence.

As a matter of fact, Germany suffers from this secularization even more because of the historical influence of liberal Protestantism, which has long since lost its religious meaning but still dominates the political atmosphere with its consequences. The link between Church and State in Germany seems to sometimes foster a certain ecclesiastical adaptation to this atmosphere, even by some of the hierarchal authorities. Instead of emphasizing a Catholic identity in front of the State, like in Poland for instance, many representatives of the Church in Germany have chosen to act more like state officials than as clergy.

This secularized view of the their own position is very obvious in the theological faculties in the state universities whose staff lately has contributed quite a bit to the image of the German ecclesiastical world as coldly opposed to the Holy See and critical even of the fundamental doctrines of the Catholic faith. The Church in Germany has been compared to a "frozen giant". Too much self-centeredness and interminable sterile discussions about the same old "modern questions" have paralyzed ecclesiastical life in Germany, which seems to be afraid of its own quite glorious tradition of faith.

Pope Benedict XVI, with his deep theological knowledge and his awesome intellectual qualities, has already answered many of the theological discussions in the past and will now contribute by his strong Papal presence in giving to the Church in Germany what he has defined as two qualities of the universal Church of today: "life and youth"!

IgnatiusInsight.com: It appears the first time Pope Benedict XVI will leave Italy, he will travel to Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day. What do you think the possible effect will be?

Msgr. Schmitz:
His much-expected visit to World Youth Day will be like an oxygen mask to the Church in Germany. The enthusiasm on St. Peter’s Square during the beginning of his ministry clearly shows that he knows how to speak to the world’s youth. His long experience as a university professor has given him all the skills necessary to attract the attention of his youthful audience. He does not need to be taught by others how to speak to the youth and how to convey to them the great message of the love of Christ.

The entire life of His Holiness has been dedicated to this task, and the large number of his academic pupils, followers, and admirers reveals the force of his intellect and the charism of his person, strengthened now and magnified by the office he has received from the Lord. I am sure that he will not only continue the apostolate for the youth initiated by John Paul II but that he will add to it a new direction of catechetic depth and clear religious instruction after the example of Venerable Pius XII and Blessed John XXIII, who also were "youthful popes".

IgnatiusInsight.com: Americans statistically claim German heritage perhaps more than any other nationality. How might this pope’s relations to America and the English-speaking world in general differ from Pope John Paul II?

Msgr. Schmitz: Since I have been in America, I have had the personal experience of a strong German presence in American culture. Names, habits, even religious devotions still show the German roots of large parts of the population.

The Papacy is above all national heritage, and the task of the Roman Pontiff as Vicar of Christ on earth and successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome really is on a universal scale. However, I am confident that the love for Germany and its history at its best, which I have encountered in the United States, will help German-rooted Americans to strengthen their link to the Papacy during this pontificate. The fact that we have a Bavarian pope and that Americans like Bavarian customs, not to speak of Octoberfest and Bavarian beer, will again facilitate a personal link to the great figure on the Papal throne because he is a real son of Bavaria.

On a much higher level, though, most of the American Catholics share with their German fellow believers an ancestral love for the Holy See and a filial devotion toward the Holy Father. Above all useless criticisms of the past forty years, this "Romanity" has survived and every day will unite the Church in America more to the Roman Pontiff actually represented by this great intellectual but humanly sympathetic and modest pope called Benedict XVI.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you have any other thoughts that you would like to share?

Msgr. Schmitz:
The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest has always cherished a truly Catholic Romanity in the school of St. Benedict, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Francis de Sales. The choice of the name Benedict by the present pope appeals to us as very familiar because St. Benedict and his rule and contribution to Catholic culture are dear to us. The personal meetings we have had with the former Cardinal Ratzinger have also linked us emotionally to this fine and holy clergyman.

Our Prior General, Msgr. Wach, the Sisters of our new female branch, and I were present on St. Peter’s Square during the ceremony of the beginning of the Papal ministry. Humanly, theologically, and as faithful, we experienced a unique moment in history, which has strengthened even more the link of our Institute to the Papacy, to which we have been always faithful. The way Pope Benedict XVI fills the highest office that God can bestow on a human being here on earth shows that Christ is always present in His Church and does not leave Her alone in a situation of crisis. Many hopes are now put on the present Pontiff, who has to govern the Church in difficult times and is well aware of many different sensibilities.

Instead of asking him to fulfill immediately our personal expectations, which may well be limited and partial, we should follow his urgent invitation to pray for him to our Blessed Lord in the Holy Eucharist and to our Blessed Mother who is so dear to him. This is not the hour of demanding quick solutions but the hour of prayer, respect, and faithfulness toward the Holy Father. If we keep near to him and implore heavenly graces for him, the Lord of the Church will certainly give His Vicar all the wisdom and strength necessary to govern His flock.

Msgr. Michael R. Schmitz
was born on the 22nd of March 1957 in Eitorf, near Cologne in Germany. He completed his philosophical and theological studies at the Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained on October 10, 1982, by the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. He finished his doctorate in Rome in 1988.

Two years as parish assistant was followed by a license in Canon Law at the state university in Munich, Bavaria. He was also teaching at the seminary of the Institute of Christ the King, and became assistant professor at Munich State University. In 1995 Msgr. Schmitz was appointed cultural attaché to the Apostolic Nunciature in Kyrgyzstan Central Asia and became the first priest holding a chair at a former Russian university. During this same period he helped the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest establish a foundation in Germany and was responsible for the German-speaking countries in the Institute of Christ the King, which is a young priestly community with the Traditional Latin Mass now working in more than ten countries. He was incardinated in the Institute of Christ the King on the feast day of the Nativity of Our Lady 2000. Since then he was appointed Vicar General in the Institute, and is now working as the Provincial Superior of the Institute in the United States of America, where the Institute has seven apostolates.

Among other activities he is a chaplain of the Order of Malta, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Rome, co-editor of various theological publications, and author of four books, and more than one hundred other publications.

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