Against the dramatic backdrop of Hitler’s Germany, a boy’s faith—and vocation—mature
Located in Bavaria, the most densely Catholic region of Germany, the Ratzinger family’s home life was imbued with the Catholic faith. Hitler had come to power when young Joseph was only five, but the family’s faith and spiritual practices fortified them through the difficulties that lay ahead.
In his 2011 memoir My Brother, the Pope, written with author and family friend Michael Hesemann, Joseph Ratzinger’s older brother Georg, also a priest, speaks about the atmosphere of faith in their childhood home: “Generally speaking, our family made a big thing of Christmas. The preparations already began with the First Sunday of Advent. At that time, the Rorate Masses were celebrated at six in the morning, and the priests wore white vestments. Normally violet is the color of the vestments in Advent, but these were special votive Masses that were supposed to recall the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to the Mother of God and her words, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word’ (Lk 1:38).
“That was the main theme of these ‘liturgies of the angels,’ as they were also called, in which the appropriate passage from the Gospel of Luke was read. After we started school, we used to attend these Masses in the early morning, before classes began. Outside it was still night, everything was dark, and the people often shivered in the cold.
“Yet the warm glow of the sanctuary compensated for the early rising and the walk through snow and ice. The dark church was illuminated by candles and tapers, which were often brought by the faithful and provided not only light but also a little warmth. Afterward we went home first, ate breakfast, and only then set out for school. These Rorate Masses were wonderful signposts leading us.
“In our family, though, it was not only Christmas that was marked by the deep faith of our parents and the religious customs of our homeland.
“The warm glow of the sanctuary compensated for the early rising and the walk through the snow”
“From our parents we learned what it means to have a firm grasp of faith in God. Every day we prayed together, and in fact before and after each meal (we ate our breakfast, dinner and supper together). The main prayer time was after the midday dinner, when the particular concerns of the family were expressed. Part of it was the prayer to Saint Dismas, the ‘good thief,’ a former criminal who was crucified together with Jesus on Mount Calvary, repented on the cross, and begged the Lord for mercy. We prayed to him, the patron of repentant thieves, to protect Father from professional troubles.”
Outside the happy Ratzinger home, deteriorating political and social conditions caused the family some measure of difficulty. Michael Hesemann notes that their father “was a small-town policeman in Altötting and then he got a reputation for being anti-Nazi. Just before Hitler came to power, his superiors advised him to get away from the town because the Nazis complained about him.”
In My Brother, the Pope, Georg Ratzinger says of his father: “It was clear to him that the Nazis were really just lying to us.” The family radio was tuned to foreign stations — a punishable offense under Nazi law — because “he wanted to know what was actually happening. Anyone who was not a staunch Nazi listened to these stations,” Georg Ratzinger recalled, “although it was strictly forbidden.”
The evil of the Nazi regime touched the Ratzinger family in myriad ways, from dissuading daughter Maria from pursuing her desire to be a teacher, lest she be required to spout Nazi propaganda in the classroom, to the tragic murder by the authorities of a 14-year-old cousin of theirs whose crime was that he was born with Down Syndrome.
“My father,” later wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “was one who with unfailing foresight saw that a victory of Hitler’s would not be a victory for Germany but rather a victory of the Antichrist that would surely usher in apocalyptic times …”