The Pope's Childhood: In His Own Words | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) | From Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (Ignatius Press, 1997) | An Interview by Peter Seewald
You grew up in the country as the youngest of three children. Your father was a constable, the family poor rather than well-off. Your mother, you once recounted, even made her own soap.
My parents had married late, and a Bavarian constable of my father's rank—he was a simple commissioner—was modestly paid. We were not poor in the strict sense of the word, because the monthly salary was guaranteed, but we did have to live very frugally and simply, for which I am very grateful. For thereby joys are made possible that one cannot have in wealth. I often think back on how wonderful it was that we could be happy over the smallest things and how we also tried to do things for one another. How this very modest, sometimes financially difficult situation gave rise to an inner solidarity that bound us deeply together.
Our parents naturally had to make sacrifices so that all three of us could study. We recognized this and tried to respond. In this way, this climate of great simplicity was a source of much joy as well as love for one another. We realized how much was given to us and how much our parents took upon themselves.
The business about the soap needs some explanation. It wasn't due to poverty but to the wartime situation in which one had to find some way to obtain goods that were not available in sufficient quantities. Our mother was by profession a cook and had many talents, and she knew such recipes by heart. With her great imagination and her practical skill she always knew, at the very moment when there was hunger in the land, how to conjure up a good meal out of the simplest and scantiest means.
My mother was very warm-hearted and had great inner strength; my father was more markedly rationalistic and deliberate. He was a reflective believer. He always understood clearly at the outset what was going on and always had an astonishingly accurate judgment. When Hitler came to power he said: There's going to be war, now we need a house.
What were things like at your house? How did you live?
First of all, there was a good deal of moving around connected with my father's job as a constable. I have no personal recollection of my place of birth, Marktl. We moved away when I was two years old. After that we were in Tittmoning, where the constabulary was quartered in what had formerly been the house of a cathedral provost. The house was very nice, but it was extremely uncomfortable to live in. The former chapter room was our bedroom, whereas the other rooms were very small. We had sufficient space. But we also realized, of course, that it was an old, dilapidated house. For my mother, it was really awful. Every day she had to drag wool and coal up two long flights of stairs. Later, in Aschau, we lived in a very pretty villa that a farmer had built for himself and rented to the constabulary. Compared with today's amenities, even that house was quite simple. There was no bath. But there was running water.
With an eye to his retirement, my father bought an old, likewise very simple farmhouse in Hufschlag near Traunstein. Instead of tap water, there was a well, which was very picturesque. On one side of the house there was an oak forest interspersed with beeches, on the other side were the mountains, and when we opened our eyes in the morning, the first thing we could see was the mountains. In the front we had apple trees, plum trees, and a lot of flowers that my mother had cultivated in the garden. It was a beautiful, large plot of ground—in terms of location it was heavenly. And in the old barns you could have the most marvelous dreams and play wonderful games.
It was an unexplored world. At bottom, it was impossible to discover everything about it, because it was so varied. There was an old weaving room in the house, because the previous owners had to all appearances been weavers. The rooms themselves were of the greatest simplicity, and the house—I believe it had been built in 1726—was on the whole in great need of repairs. The rain came in and so forth. But it was simply wonderful; it was a childhood dream. We felt altogether happy there even without comforts. For my father, who had to pay for the necessary repairs, for my mother, who carried water from the well, it was perhaps less fun. But we experienced it as a real paradise. It took us just under half an hour to get to the city. But even that—the fact that you were on the move like that—was wonderful. So we didn't feel at all the lack of modern amenities but experienced the adventure, freedom, and beauty of an old house with its inner warmth.
Was it strict in your parents' house?
In a certain sense it was. My father was a very upright and also a very strict man. But we always sensed the goodness behind his strictness. And for that reason we could basically accept his strictness without trouble. From the very beginning my mother always compensated for my father's perhaps excessive strictness by her warmth and kindness. They had two very different temperaments, and this difference was also exactly what made them complementary. Yes, I have to say that it was strict, but there was still a lot of warmth and kindness and joy. That was augmented by the fact that we played with one another, even our parents joined in, and that music also had a bigger and bigger role in our family life. Music, after all, has the power to bring people together.
Your parents sent all three children to boarding school. How did that come about?
At that time it was the only way to get a better education. There were very few high schools [Gymnasien] in the country. Since the schools were so far away, there was generally no other choice but boarding school. My sister attended a high [Mittelshule] run by the Franciscan Sisters. She rode there on her bicycle; it was five kilometers away, and she continued to live at home. She herself then asked to stay at the boarding school and was allowed to. My brother was the first to go to the Gymnasium, which meant boarding school. There was simply no other way. At first I went to school every day from home. After two years, now that I was the only child at home, the idea came up that it would be a good supplement to my education if I also went to boarding school. And it certainly had—it wasn't easy for me, I must say—a good corrective function. You learn a different kind of social interaction and also how to fit in. This lasted only two years, however, for all the boarding schools in Traunstein ended up being converted to military hospitals. So, from that point on I was back at home.
Could one say that the family home was markedly religious?
One could certainly say that. My father was a very religious man. On Sundays he went to Mass at six, then to the main liturgy at nine, and again in the afternoon. My mother ha a very warm and heartfelt piety. On that point the two, again, were at one in different ways. Religion was quite central.
What was your religious education at home like? I mean, a lot of parents today clearly have a problem with it.
Religion was part of life. The simple fact of praying together made it so. There was prayer at all meals. Whenever our school schedule would allow it, we naturally also went to daily Mass, and on Sundays we went to church together. Later, when my father was retired, we generally also prayed the rosary; for the rest my parents relied on the catechesis we received in school. My father also bought us things to read; there were magazines, for example, when we made our First Holy Communion. But there wasn't explicit religious education; it was given by family prayer and church attendance.
As a young person, what did you find so fascinating about the faith?
From the very beginning—it was exactly the same for my brother and sister, I think—I had a lot of interesting the liturgy. My parents had already bough me my first missal when I was in the second grade. It was actually terribly exciting to penetrate into the mysterious world of the Latin liturgy and to find out what was actually happening, what it meant, what was being said. And so then we progressed by degrees from a children's missal to a more complete missal, to the complete version. That was a kind of voyage of discovery.
Were there father-son conflicts?
In some sense there certainly always were. However, I had a very close relationship with my father. This was really due to the fact that already in his last year of work he took rather long sick leaves. The Third Reich went terribly against his grain, and he tried to get out of service as early as possible. In these months he took a lot of hikes with me. At that point we became very close to each other. When later all three children were studying and my family's financial situation had become very difficult after my father's retirement, so that my mother went back to doing seasonal work as a cook in Reit im Winkl, I was alone at home with my father. He told a lot of stories; he had a great gift for storytelling. So as we walked and told stories, we grew very close. Moreover, his religion and his decided antagonism toward the regime were convincing to us. His 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.
So how did he express himself toward the regime?
He was in the civil service until 1937. In Tittmoning we lived through the so-called "time of struggle", the final period of the Weimar Republic. I was still very small, but I can remember how he suffered. He had subscribed to Der gerade Weg, an anti-Nazi newspaper; I can still remember the caricatures of Hitler. He was very sharp in his terminology. The approaching seizure of power, which he saw coming, was also the chief reason why we went to the village. There the situation was obviously much less tense, even though there were unfortunately a large number of Nazis among the country farmers. He made no public opposition; that wouldn't have been possible even in the village. But at home, whenever he read the newspaper, he almost had fits of rage. He always expressed his indignation vigorously and always spoke freely to people whom he could trust. Above all, he never joined any organization, even though he was a civil servant.
Where you in the Hitler Youth?
At first we weren't, but when the compulsory Hitler Youth was introduced in 1941, my brother was obliged to join. I was still too young, but later, as a seminarian, I was registered in the HY. As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back. And that was difficult, because the tuition reduction, which I really needed, was tied to proof of attendance at the HY. Thank goodness, there was a very understanding mathematics teacher. He himself was a Nazi but an honest man, who said to me, "Just go once and get the document so that we have it..." When he saw that I simply didn't want to, he said, "I understand, I'll take care of it", and so I was able to stay free of it.
What would you have wanted to be when you were still a child? Were there models?
I couldn't really say that I had clear models. As is the case with children, ideas often change radically. At some point a house painter who painted a wall impressed me so much that I wanted to emulate him. When later Cardinal Faulhaber paid a visit to our region, with his imposing purple, he impressed me all the more, so that I said, I would like to become something like that.
House painter and cardinal—quite different professions.
Yes, you're right, but there you see that a child doesn't reflect on these things; he bases himself on the optical effect, Pretty early on, already in elementary school, a desire to teach awoke in me. I'm grateful that this desire fit so well with the idea of the priesthood. But I would say that teaching, the transmission of what you've discovered, was early on something that excited me. Writing too. Already in elementary school I began to write. To write poems and so forth.
How did your vocation happen? When did you know what your destiny was? You said once that "I was convinced, I myself don't know how, that God wanted something from me, and it could be attained only by my becoming a priest."
At any rate, there was no lightning-like moment of illumination when I realized I was meant to become a priest. On the contrary, there was a long process of maturation, and the decision had to be thought through and constantly rewon. I couldn't date the decision, either. But the feeling that God had a plan for each person, for me too, became clear for me early on. Gradually it became clear to me that what he had in mind had to do with the priesthood.
Did you have something like flashes of illumination—or something like illumination—at a later time?
Well, I haven't had illuminations in the classical sense, if by that you mean something half-mystical. I am a perfectly ordinary Christian. But in a broader sense faith certainly gives one might. As one reflects on that faith, one certainly seems, to say it with Heidegger, to get a glimpse of the clearing from the various paths through the woods.
After you decided to become a priest—didn't certain self-doubts emerge at some time, temptations or seductions?
They did, to be sure. In the six years of theological study one encounters so many human problems and questions, Is celibacy right for me? Is being a parish priest right for me? Those were indeed questions not always easy to deal with. I always had the basic direction before me, but there was no lack of crises.
Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was for over two decades the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II. He is a renowned theologian and author of numerous books. A mini-bio and full listing of his books published by Ignatius Press are available on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.
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