CNS PHOTO | COURTESY OF MICHAEL HESEMANN
Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, the brother of Pope Benedict, is pictured at his home in Regensburg, Germany, last year.
ROME – Recounting their rural Bavarian childhood and subsequent lifelong friendship, the elder brother of Pope Benedict offers a privileged look at the personal side of the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics.
My Brother, the Pope, published March 1 by Ignatius Press, is based on interviews with Msgr. Georg Ratzinger by German writer Michael Hesemann and was originally published in German last year.
Joseph, the future Pope Benedict, was "very slight and delicate" at birth, Msgr. Ratzinger says, and was "often sick" as an infant, with diphtheria among other ailments. Later on, Joseph's favourite toys were stuffed animals, and he was particularly attached to a pair of teddy bears.
Ratzinger describes family life with their parents and older sister Maria as free of any overt conflict, "since each one settled that himself and with God in personal prayer. We did not talk about such things. . . . Such problems became a part of our prayer."
Glimpses of the boys' destinies came early on.
When a cardinal visited their small town in 1931, four-year-old Joseph exclaimed, "I'll be a cardinal someday!" Nevertheless, Ratzinger says, his brother was never ambitious, and external honours have been "always unwelcome" to him.
"My brother was somewhat better behaved than I," Ratzinger says, yet he recounts a boyhood prank in which the two tricked a local farmer into losing track of his oxcart.
Recreation of a more edifying sort came when the boys played at being priests, using a toy altar made for them by an uncle.
"It was a really beautiful high altar, which he even equipped with a rotating tabernacle," Ratzinger recalls. "Naturally we used water instead of wine for the make-believe consecration."
The future Pope Benedict, now a proficient amateur pianist and lover of Mozart, "did not take to music quite as spontaneously as I did," says Ratzinger, who went on to become the choirmaster of the Regensburg, Germany, cathedral.
His brother "was a little more restrained, although he is a very musical person," Ratzinger says.
Recounting Hitler's rise to power in 1930s Germany, Ratzinger says their father regarded the dictator as the "Antichrist" and refused to join the Nazi party.
"But so as not to put our family completely at risk, he advised Mother to join the women's organization," Ratzinger says, noting that the women "did not talk about Hitler but instead exchanged recipes, chatted about their gardens, and sometimes even prayed the rosary together."
It was only reluctantly that the two boys obeyed requirements to join the Hitler Youth and later served in the German military during the Second World War, Ratzinger says. The pope's brother was present at the Allied bombardment of the monastery on Monte Cassino, Italy, in 1944.
Ratzinger recounts anecdotes about their time together as adults: watching a German television series about a police dog named Inspector Rex and dividing tasks in the kitchen – the monsignor washing dishes while his brother, by then a cardinal, drying.
In 2005, after the death of Blessed John Paul II, Ratzinger was sure that his brother was too old to be elected pope. When he heard the new pontiff's name pronounced on live television, he admits that he was "disheartened."
"It was a great challenge, an enormous task for him, I thought, and I was seriously worried," Ratzinger says.
The pope later confided that his election had "struck him like a bolt of lightning," Ratzinger says.
Readers get a glimpse inside the papal household as Ratzinger describes his brother's daily routine. On Tuesdays, for example, Pope Benedict listens to tape recordings and practises his pronunciation of the remarks in foreign languages that he will make at the next day's general audience.
Ratzinger says that his brother has not been indifferent to the many criticisms that he has received during his career, as prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then as pope.
Pope Benedict is "personally very sensitive, but he also knows from which corner these attacks come and the reason for them, what is usually behind them," Ratzinger says. "That way he overcomes it more easily, he rises above it more simply."