Cardinal Recollections

by Fr. John Jay Hughes


An article about the early life of Cardinal Ratzinger.

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Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., November 8, 1998

Driving through Alsace, France, with my beloved elderly step-mother several years ago, I turned off the road at a sign that read "Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof." A short walk brought me to an immaculately tended German military cemetery. Rows of graves lay on a slope overlooking the Rhine, visible in the distance, with Germany beyond. The dates on the crosses revealed that few of the dead had lived much beyond their 21st birthday. I prayed for the fallen and for peace, and returned to the car.

"You didn't want to come," I remarked to my stepmother. "No," she replied. "They're the enemy." "Frances, dear," I told her as kindly as I could. "We must be more compassionate. Most of them were just boys, caught up in the maelstrom of war."

I recalled this exchange as I read the account of a wartime experience by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in his memoirs, "Milestones" (Ignatius, $15). In September 1944, as a 17-year-old schoolboy, he was drafted into a labor battalion commanded by fanatical Austrian "Old Nazis."

"One night we were dragged out of our beds and lined up, still half-asleep, in our training suits," writes Cardinal Ratzinger. "An SS officer made each of us step forward individually. Taking advantage of our drowsiness, and by placing us on display before the whole troop, he tried to get us to 'volunteer' for the Waffen-SS. In this way a number of well-meaning comrades were pressed into service with this criminal gang. With a few others I was happy to be able to say that I intended to be a Catholic priest. Whereupon we were dismissed with withering scorn and abuse. How delicious these insults tasted, however. They were our deliverance from the menace of this mendacious 'voluntary service' with all its consequences."

Familiar arguments

The youngest of three children, Joseph Ratzinger was born on Good Friday, 1927, in the southern Bavarian village of Martkl am Inn. He was baptized on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil, celebrated in those days in the morning. "The more I think about it, the more fitting it seems that I was baptized on Easter Eve, not Easter," he writes in his memoirs. "We live in this world not in the full light of Easter, but journeying toward that light, full of hope."

Cardinal Ratzinger's father was an officer in the state police. His hatred of the Nazis, whose brutal misconduct often made it necessary for him to intervene, made him a marked man even before Hitler's assumption of power in 1933. A devout Catholic — as was his wife — the father would warn the local clergy when he knew they were under Nazi surveillance. He was relieved when he reached the age of 60 in 1937 and was able to retire.

Some years earlier, the family had moved to the town of Tittmoning, on the Austrian frontier. The parish priest there had the title of dean, and his curates were canons. "As was customary in capitular churches," says Cardinal Ratzinger, "the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in a side chapel, not in the tabernacle on the high altar." One wonders what today's self-styled traditionalists, who suppose that this ancient Catholic tradition is a novelty, will make of this information.

Cardinal Ratzinger remembers pastoral letters defending Catholic schools against Nazi attacks. Even as a schoolboy, however, he was aware "at least dimly" that there was little point defending institutions if they were not staffed by committed believers. Some of his early teachers were fervent Catholics, others not. A talented younger teacher, an enthusiastic Nazi, tried to replace Christian festivals with pagan observances — Maypole and solstice celebrations — which he promoted as expressions of the authentic Germanic spirit, superior to the Church's Jewish-Roman rites.

"Whenever I hear today critics in various parts of the world complaining that Christianity has supplanted native cultures and imposed European values, I am amazed at how familiar the arguments are, and even some of the terminology," the cardinal comments. "Such arguments enjoyed little success with the stolid Bavarian farmers I knew in my youth. The younger generation was more interested in the sausages that hung from the Maypole, awaiting those who could climb fastest, than in the high-flown speeches of their Nazi schoolmaster."

Despite such attempts to introduce novelties, village life in the early years of Nazi rule continued to revolve around the Church. Baptisms, church weddings and funerals were taken for granted, even by nominal Catholics. Reception of Communion was less frequent than today. But just about everyone went to confession before Easter. It is fashionable today. Cardinal Ratzinger observes, to decry all that as formalism. But the sight of prosperous landowners lining up with their still-numerous maids and servants to kneel humbly in the confessionals represented a leveling of class differences that was certainly not without value.

Especially striking is Cardinal Ratzinger's description of his early interest in the liturgy, celebrated even then with far greater congregational participation than was the case in English-speaking countries. With the help of German-Latin missals, he gained access to a world that fascinated him from the start.

"Penetrating the mysterious world of the liturgy which was celebrated at the altar in front of us was an exciting adventure," he recalls. "I realized with increasing clarity that I was encountering something which had been created neither by an individual, by a great mind, nor by Church officials. This mysterious tapestry of texts and actions had developed over centuries, out of the Church's faith. It carried the fruit of history, yet it was more than the product of human history. Each century had left its mark. The explanations in the missal allowed us to see what was ancient, what medieval, and what was modern. Not everything was logical. Some things were jumbled. In places it was difficult to find one's way. But despite all, it was a wonderful building, a spiritual home.... The inexhaustible reality of Catholic liturgy has been my companion through all the stages of my life."

The road home

Hitler's seizure of the Sudentenland in the autumn of 1938, on the pretext that its German inhabitants were being maltreated by the Czech government, was preceded by "a campaign of lies obvious even to the half-blind." The Munich agreement, which sanctioned this act of aggression, "was clearly only a postponement, not a solution. My father could not understand how the French, whom he so admired, could swallow each of Hitler's successive violations of international law as something almost normal."

The attack on Poland in September 1939, "preceded by the same ritual staged before the Sudenten takeover," was followed by the eery quiet of the "phony war" and then by Hitler's swift victories in Denmark and Norway, the Low Countries and France. "Even opponents of National Socialism experienced a kind of patriotic pride. . . . My father, however, saw with unblinking clarity that a victory for Hitler would be a victory not for Germany but for the anti-Christ, the beginning of apocalyptic times for all believers — and not only for them," the cardinal writes.

The repeated postponements of the loudly proclaimed invasion of Great Britain provoked "doubts and disquiet." Cardinal Ratzinger still remembers clearly the sunny June Sunday in 1941 on which Hitler attacked the Soviet Union:

"Our class had organized a boat trip on a nearby lake. This fresh expansion of the war hung over us like a nightmare, killing our joy. This could not turn out well. We thought of Napoleon. We thought of the endless expanses of Russia, which would surely swallow up the German attack."

The future cardinal was now in a minor seminary. Classes became increasingly intermittent as the war intensified. The invasion of France by the Western allies in May 1944 "was a sign of hope for most of us. We had considerable trust in the Western powers whose sense of justice, we hoped, would help Germany to a new, peaceful existence."

Released from the labor battalion at the end of November, Joseph enjoyed a few weeks at home before being drafted into an anti-aircraft battery in Munich. His greatest peril came in the days preceding Germany's surrender in early May 1945. Taking advantage of the prevailing chaos, he made his way home, narrowly escaping the sentries posted at every crossroad with orders to shoot all "deserters" on sight. Once home, he found himself in even greater danger from two SS officers quartered in the family home, whose comrades had already hung from trees other young deserters. The two disappeared suddenly, without harming the young Joseph or his father, whose open denunciations of Hitler would have brought him immediate death only days before.

Later taken from his home by American soldiers for a six-week stay in a prisoner-of-war camp, Joseph came home for good at the end of June 1945, just before sunset.

"The heavenly Jerusalem could not have looked more beautiful to me. It was the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I could hear singing and prayers from the church.... Never in my life have I tasted a more delicious meal than the modest supper Mother prepared for us from the fruits of our garden. . . . Weeks later my older brother appeared, brown from the Italian sun, and sat at the piano to play 'Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.' The months following, when we tasted once again our newfound freedom, are among the most beautiful memories of my whole life."

In January 1946, with his brother and 120 other seminarians, he began studies for the priesthood in the Munich diocesan seminary. Their rector had spent five years as a prisoner in the nearby Dachau concentration camp. Thankful for a freedom they had not experienced for 13 years, the students, many of them hardened war veterans who looked askance at untested youngsters such as 19-year-old Joseph, threw themselves into their studies with enthusiasm.

"We were determined to make up for the lost years, to serve Christ in His Church for a new and better future, a better Germany, a better world," he recalls in his memoirs. "None of us doubted that the Church was the proper object of our hopes. Despite its human weaknesses, the Church had withstood the Nazi onslaught. In the midst of the inferno which had devoured other powerful forces in society, the Church had remained steadfast with a strength not of this world. Christ's promise had been fulfilled: the gates of hell had not prevailed. We knew what those gates looked like. We had seen them with our own eyes. But we saw too the house which had remained standing, because it was founded on rock."

Father Hughes, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, is the author of "Pontiffs: Popes Who Shaped History" (Our Sunday Visitor, $16.95)

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