Despite tremendous hardship, the Bavaria in which the Ratzingers were raised was a happy place
I was interested to read Piers Paul Read in the Charterhouse column of the Herald for April 27; he is lamenting the fact that none of his children, now adults, practise their faith – this despite a Catholic education and a conscientious and believing Catholic father. What went wrong? Read blames the Catholic schools they attended, where the emphasis was on justice and peace and the Catechism was simply ignored.
Of course, it is more complicated than this. At the same time as Catholic schools were abdicating their responsibility to pass on the Faith, the world outside had embraced the Pill and sexual freedom, and had developed an aversion to what seemed to be old-fashioned morality with its censoriousness and prejudices. Hugh Greene was Director-General of the BBC, Mrs Mary Whitehouse was a figure of fun, the Abortion Act was passed and the Second Vatican Council had left confusion and disarray in its wake. It has not been a good time to try to bring up children to be practising Catholics.
Contrast England from the 1960s onwards with Bavaria in 1920. I say this because I am just reading the most moving memoirs of Mgr Georg Ratzinger, “My Brother the Pope” (published by Gracewing for £16.99.) Mgr Ratzinger, as is known, is the older brother of Pope Benedict. Now aged 88, he lives in retirement in Regensburg where for over 30 years he was the conductor and choirmaster of the famous cathedral choir.
The traditional Catholic culture of Bavaria was still strong when the Ratzinger boys were growing up – as the Pope himself has testified to in his own memoir: Milestones. Family life was very stable, mothers did not go out to work, divorce had not impinged, parish life was vigorous and there were no televisions, computers or mobile phones. Life was not easy – Mgr Ratzinger recalls his father, a policeman, being paid by the day and his earnings being almost immediately worthless because of inflation; there was also the growing political threat from the Nazi Party, which Ratzinger senior abhorred. Yet there was none of the lack of a shared morality between the generations and between family and the outside world inferred by Piers Paul Read’s article.
Two things stand out in Mgr Ratzinger’s book: the strength of family life and the seemingly natural development of both sons’ vocations to the priesthood that sprang from their homelife and parish activities. The author admits that he and his brother did not know that his father, at last financially secure enough to afford to marry, had put an advertisement in the local Catholic newspaper in April 1920: “Mid-level government official, single, Catholic, 43 years old, with an irreproachable record, from the country, seeks to marry in the near future a good Catholic girl who is tidy and a good cook and can do all the household chores and is also proficient at sewing and has her own furnishings.”
There is no mention of wanting “fun” or a “partner”, the wish to “travel” or the need for a “good sense of humour”, so common to today’s personal ads. Feminists would also want to lynch the good policeman for sounding so obviously “sexist”. But actually the couple – she was 36, had been working as a cook and was probably glad of an upright, devout spouse with a secure income and accommodation to go with it – made a very happy marriage, recalled by their sons with great affection and love.
By the time he had finished primary school the musical elder son already knew he wanted to become a priest. He went to the junior seminary aged 12, to be followed by his bookworm younger brother at the same age. Today junior seminaries no longer exist in this country; it is thought to be psychologically unsound to select boys at such a young age. But for the Ratzinger brothers, loving music and the liturgy, growing up in a family that prayed together every evening (and ate three meals a day together in the kitchen-cum-dining room), enjoying walks and family sing-songs, it was the ideal culture to nurture a vocation.
As Read’s article suggests, raising children as Catholics today is a very different matter.