Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith

By Allen, John L. | National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000 | Go to article overview

Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith


Allen, John L., National Catholic Reporter


`Bundle' of memories that formed Ratzinger

Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927, the youngest of three children in a lower-middle-class Bavarian household. Just a month later, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic in the Spirit of Saint Louis. Lindbergh's path would intersect, in a remote way, with Ratzinger's again. During the 1930s, Lindbergh emerged as one of the leading American sympathizers with National Socialism. In 1941, he gave a famous speech identifying the three forces leading America into war as "the British, Roosevelt, and the Jews." Radio broadcasts of this remark played widely across Germany, no doubt including Ratzinger's hometown of Traunstein. The Nazis had ensured that radios were cheap and plentiful so their propaganda could reach every corner of the Reich.

In Rome, Plus XI was five years into his pontificate in 1927, and more concerned with increasing devotion to his new Feast of Christ the King than with the gathering war clouds in Europe. Germany was in the late stages of the Weimar Republic, menaced by the threat of a Bolshevik workers' uprising as well as by various conservative and nationalistic factions. Hitler was the leader of one of those factions, the National Socialists, despite the fact that he was not a German citizen. He renounced his Austrian citizenship in 1925 and was not granted German citizenship until 1932, on the eve of his run for president. At about the time Ratzinger was born, Hitler recruited a new publicist to his team named Joseph Gobbels.

In rural southern Bavaria, April 16, 1927, was one of those snowy, bitterly cold days the region sometimes gets in the spring. Bavarians are a tough lot, in part because by butting up against the Alps, they get some of the worst weather in middle Europe. It did not help that Ratzinger entered the world at 4:15 A.M., in the icy chill of the early morning. His older brother and sister were not allowed to come to his baptism for fear of getting sick.

Perhaps it was fate that Ratzinger was born on Holy Saturday, and his parents were named Joseph and Mary. Like another child of another Joseph and Mary, Ratzinger grew up to become a sign of contradiction, a scandal to some and a sort of savior to others. Ratzinger reports in his 1998 autobiography that because he was born on Holy Saturday, he was baptized with the newly blessed Easter water in the small parish church in the village of Marktl am Inn. It is difficult not to read some kind of sacred meaning into the scene, and Ratzinger has not resisted, seeing it as a symbol of the human condition in its "not quite" relation to Easter and the resurrection.

Now seventy-three, Ratzinger's childhood memories are the ones most closely tied to his understanding of who he is and what he believes. Listening to him and reading him today, it is striking that Ratzinger rarely makes reference to his mid-twenties through mid-forties, the years as a professional theologian during which he achieved wide fame. When Ratzinger wants to strike an autobiographical chord, he always looks back to his early days in one of four small Bavarian towns. Those memories are of intimate moments shared with his family; of the rock-solid Catholic ethos of Bavaria, expressed in the liturgy and the simple faith of the people; of his own intellectual awakening, fueled by classical languages and literature; and, finally, of the political and social upheavals of the day, most dramatically, the rise and fall of Hitler's Third Reich.

Memory, however, is selective. When people reach back across their lifetimes, memory becomes a redactor, editing images so they cohere with the person's current understanding of self. People reshape, reinterpret, and distort their pasts in light of their present interests and priorities. To fully understand Ratzinger, therefore, it is necessary to round out his picture, to recover some of the elements of his early days that his own published recollections and remarks have omitted. …

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