In an interview with Vatican News, Dr. Michael Hesemann, a close friend of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his brother Georg Ratzinger, says: “instead of mourning, it is time to thank God that he was among us”, and reflects on how “we all had the opportunity to rediscover Christianity by his constant inspiration, and so will our children and future generations.”
A close friend of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and co-author with Msgr. Georg Ratzinger of the widely-acclaimed book My Brother, the Pope, Dr Michael Hesemann offers a personal glimpse of the late Pontiff in this interview.
Q: As someone who knew him closely, what was Benedict XVI like?
He was the greatest thinker and philosopher of our times, and one of the most pious, saintly priests I ever met. He was a warm, humble, wonderful Holy Father, a good shepherd who really loves and cares for his sheep. Besides this, he was deeply human: He was a proud Bavarian, with a wonderful sentimental side and love for his homeland, his parents, their traditions, especially their Christmas traditions.
Christmas was always his favorite time of the year and when you came to the Monastery Mater Ecclesiae, his residence during the last ten years, during Christmas time, it was decorated like you decorate your home in Bavaria for Christmas. It is no coincidence that his health only declined after Christmas, that he wanted to celebrate it a very last time – the 95th time! – and did not want anybody to worry and be distracted from the Joy of Christmas.
He had the pure heart of a child – a saintly child – and kept the simple piety and devotion of the Bavarian country people. Besides, what makes him even more human, he had a small, secret passion for everything sweet: his favorite dish was “Kaiserschmarrn,” a kind of thick pancake, cut into pieces, with raisins and almonds and lots of powdered sugar, and everyone who really knew him and wanted to make him happy brought him hand-made Pralines from Regensburg, his home town.
Q: That sounds rather down to earth…
After Benedict XVI turned 90, in 2017, I had an appointment with him in the Vatican Gardens, at the Lourdes Grotto, to congratulate him: “Holy Father, I wish you many more years in good health, strength and spirits, blessed by God!” He looked at me with a serious expression, rising his right index finger, and admonished me: “Mr Hesemann, please don’t wish me that!” I was shocked. “But, Holy Father, you have such a good life here in the beautiful Vatican Gardens” was the only thing I could say before his index finger went even higher: “Heaven is much more beautiful!” And yes, he indeed lived with one foot in the heavenly kingdom already, when he was still here on Earth!
Q: Would you say the Pope Emeritus was misunderstood?
I think of those who call him “God’s Rottweiler.” He was everything but a Rottweiler. When a journalist once interviewed him and asked him if he was “God’s watchdog” as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he replied in his dry, subtle Bavarian humour: “There are also some friendly watchdogs!”
He was so far away from being a strict, resolute prelate but always, even with his biggest opponents, open, kind and friendly … Benedict did not only speak about God’s love and mercy, he practised it. But love and understanding did not mean compromise for him. He never betrayed the truth for just a foul compromise.
Q: Tell us about his humble beginnings…
His father was a country policeman, his mother a cook. They never had a lot of money; they moved a lot because his father was transferred to several police stations and his career was blocked when the Nazis came into power. He was adamantly against the Nazis. Eventually, facing early retirement, he was able to buy a small, simple farmhouse near Traunstein where the family lived when the war ended and before the two brothers became priests. These humble beginnings always grounded him, kept him down to Earth …
Still, you may ask how it happened that such a simple countryside family raised two boys which both became geniuses: The one, Georg Ratzinger, a world-famous musician, the celebrated director of Germany’s most famous choir and a great, brilliant composer, the other the greatest theologian of his time and eventually the 265th successor of St. Peter. The answer is what I call “the Ratzinger family secret”: In America you say “a family which prays together stays together,” but here it was even more: the deep spirituality and faith of his parents who prayed daily the rosary, kneeling on the hard kitchen floor with their children, who went to Holy Mass regularly…
Q: Yes, his vocation was already evident as a child…
When he was a child, he wanted to become a priest. At that time, there were little toy altars for children and one day one of his uncles came and brought him one for Christmas. Little Joseph was overwhelmed. His mother started to sew “vestments” for him, so that he, in all seriousness, together with his brother, celebrated Holy Mass in their home. It was a wonderful preparation for his priestly service. Indeed this toy altar is still preserved, you saw it in his private home in Regensburg.
Q: Pope St. John Paul II was loved and left a tremendous legacy. Yet, Ratzinger was elected already by the afternoon of the second day of the Conclave, in the fourth vote. Why was the College of Cardinals so convinced he was the person to lead the Church? How did he pick up and expand JPII’s legacy?
First of all, with John Paul II a giant had passed away, the father of a whole generation, who formed the Catholic Church in the 21st century more than any other Pope before. So, the cardinals realized that the only functioning solution would be continuity. And who would guarantee more continuity than Ratzinger, his closest co-worker and brilliant theologian?
The problem was that Ratzinger did not want anything less than to become Pope.
Q: How so?
Actually, his dream was to retire in Regensburg in his beloved Bavaria, stay close to his brother and write some more books. He wanted it already seven years ago, when he turned 70, but John Paul II had asked him to stay in office as long as he was alive. Out of loyalty, Ratzinger agreed with tears in his eyes. John Paul II’s trick was to make him Dean of the College of Cardinals so that Ratzinger had to deliver the homily in the Opening Mass of the Conclave.
Ratzinger took the opportunity to deliver his spiritual testament, warning of the dictatorship of relativism in our troubled times, but the Cardinals were impressed by the brilliant, crystal-clear analysis and understood: This is the man who sees the problem, names it and offers the solution. This was their final confirmation to vote for Ratzinger. The first one was the Requiem of John Paul II, where, again, Ratzinger delivered the homily and touched all of our hearts. We all had tears in our eyes when he directly spoke to the deceased pontiff, “looking through the window of the house of the father and blessing us all”. That moment I turned to those with me on the balcony of the Secretariat of State, pointed to Ratzinger, and said: “Habemus papam.”
Q: Why was his stepping down significant?
Well, with his resignation he wrote a new chapter of Church history and created a new office, that of the Pope Emeritus. I met him several times before his resignation and was deeply worried, because I saw his health and strength declining dramatically. I knew that 2013 would be the last year of his pontificate, although I believed for natural reasons. When he surprised all of us with his resignation I knew and I felt that he gave us the true reason. He was completely exhausted; his body was worn out. He acted out of his profound feeling of responsibility and love for the Church. He did not want to be an ailing, weak pontiff, maybe blind and voiceless. He wanted to hand over the ship of St. Peter to a helmsman with stronger arms.
Q: What distinguished his pontificate from others?
Benedict XVI’s pontificate was a shining light in the period of darkness when the Church was guided by a brilliant shepherd full of wisdom, a humble man, close to the people, who listened to everyone. Those eight years brought the ship of St. Peter on a course right into heaven. The message of the Church was presented in clarity, purity and truthfulness. It speaks against our times that so many ignored it and turned away, maybe missing the last chance of God’s mercy.
Q: What legacy will his pontificate leave?
His theology is his legacy, his books, his speeches, his homilies. Nobody in 2000 years was able to explain the truth of the Christian faith in such a beautiful, elegant, easy-to-understand, clear, simple language. Even in a thousand years, Christians will read his writings. He will be remembered as the Teacher of the Church who became Pope – and was overwhelmed by the duty to defend the truth and clean the Church in the time of its greatest crisis, the great European apostasy.
Q: How would you characterize the relationship of Benedict and Francis, coexisting in the Vatican?
Although both were so different in their style and personal culture, their relationship was always extremely warm and friendly. Pope Francis had great respect for Benedict XVI and the Pope Emeritus liked his successor a lot and described him as a warm, generous man with a deep faith and profound spirituality. Media headlines about a “War of the Popes” were just fake news. Benedict never abandoned the pontificate during hard times, until he felt he had to, for health reasons. Nor did he retire to Germany as he could have.
Q: How would you characterize the Pope Emeritus’ final phase in life?
For him, it was a prolonged pilgrimage to his ultimate goal, the encounter with His and Our Lord. He lived his last decade as “Pope Emeritus” in the constant expectation of this final hour, with his weakening body still on Earth, with his soul already in heaven and with his brilliant mind as an intermediator, an instrument to communicate the heavenly truth to all of us.
We can be sure that this saintly man indeed is in heaven by now and will be our advocate, but also a role model for holiness, a guide and visionary who saw the Church as God intended it to be and whose writings are a lighthouse for coming generations, the guidance our Church needs today more than ever, in these turbulent times in an era of collective confusion. And so instead of mourning, it is time to thank God that he was among us and that we all had the opportunity to rediscover Christianity by his constant inspiration, and so will our children and future generations. Grazie tante, Papa Benedetto – or, as you say in his native Bavarian: “Vergelt’s Gott, Heiliger Vater!”