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from issue no. 06 - 2011

BENEDICT XVI. His sixty years of priesthood

“A gratitude that grows from year to year”

An interview with Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who was ordained priest sixty years ago along with his brother Joseph

Interview with Georg Ratzinger by Roberto Rotondo and Silvia Kritzenberger

“The most important day of my life”, so Joseph Ratzinger has always described the day of his ordination on 29 June 1951. And, as everyone knows, that day his brother Georg was ordained with him in the Cathedral of Freising in Bavaria. So, on the occasion of the Pope’s sixtieth year of priesthood, we asked Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, the perfect witness, to go back in his mind to that morning in the summer of 1951. Starting from the recent anniversary.


Monsignor Georg Ratzinger [© Stefan Matzke/Sampics/Corbis]

Monsignor Georg Ratzinger [© Stefan Matzke/Sampics/Corbis]

Monsignor Ratzinger, what remains in your heart of the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of priesthood?

GEORG RATZINGER: I won’t conceal that initially I only wanted to celebrate privately, without taking part in any formal ceremonies, because I’ve not yet got all my strength back after the operation on my knee and ceremonies always demand a certain mental and physical freshness. But I’m glad things turned out differently, because there were some very touching moments, such as the very fine celebration organized in the Cathedral of Freising by the Benedict XVI Institute, which is publishing the complete works of the Holy Father. The Cathedral of Freising is where my brother and I were ordained priests and the atmosphere is very familiar to me. In the morning there was the recitation of Lauds and then, after addresses of welcome, and some speeches, there was lunch with high-ranking prelates, some cardinals, the auxiliary bishops and, of course, the long-time friends. A second important moment was Mass in my collegiate church of St John the Baptist, the church was crowded and there was a solemn atmosphere. Finally, the third event was the Mass in St Peter’s in Rome: it was moving to think that our anniversary was part of the feast in memory of Saints Peter and Paul, so important for Rome and the universal Church.

It must have been a joy for your brother to have you alongside during those days...

It’s always a great joy when we see each other. Throughout our lives we’ve always been in touch, and of course we don’t want to give that up now in old age, in which we are experiencing this feeling of belonging to one another in a particular way.

What did you think on that 29 June in 1951? Recalling the day of his ordination, the Pope, said: “I no longer call you servants but friends. Sixty years after my ordination I still hear resounding in my heart those words of Jesus, that our great archbishop, Cardinal Faulhaber, addressed to us newly ordained priests on the day of ordination”...

I thought it was a turning point in my life, as in that of every man who becomes a priest, because priestly ordination gives to man a new quality of life and turns him into an “envoy” of Christ, who should bring the mystery and the word of Jesus Christ to the world. Over the years I have come to realize how true are the words of the Gospel of John that Cardinal Faulhaber addressed to us, because ordination involves a special friendship with Christ in that it confers a particular mandate. And it bestows the surprise and the awareness of seeing how the Lord intervenes, so to speak, in our human life.

And how was that day lived by your family?

It was a unique experience of joy. In our family life, which up till then had been the life of a normal family, there was an event that at that time was considered a gift: the priesthood, something that involves eternity, a different sphere. I was three years older than my brother but it was splendid to go through ordination and our first Mass together, even though it was only a consequence of the war that had upset the plans of all of us. In those years in the seminary of Freising, in fact, there were large age differences between aspiring priests.

During the years in the seminary who were the people who most influenced your maturing as priests and Christians?

A key figure in the “Domberg” in Freising was our rector Michael Höck, who had come back from five years spent in the concentration camp at Dachau. His path in life was that of a pious, devout and committed priest. He had something fatherly, good, understanding, and he was considered more like a father than a superior. What he had at heart, in those difficult times, was to help each of us to find the road that leads to a good outcome.

On 29 June 1951, in Freising Cathedral, Cardinal Faulhaber ordaining priests more than forty seminarians, including Georg and Joseph Ratzinger

On 29 June 1951, in Freising Cathedral, Cardinal Faulhaber ordaining priests more than forty seminarians, including Georg and Joseph Ratzinger

During lunch with you and the cardinals, the Pope, going back in his mind to 1951, pointed out that then the world was totally different from today and Germany had to be rebuilt materially and morally. Did you feel you were sharing in that reconstruction even by becoming priests?

We are all conditioned by the period in which we live, we share with the people of our period the difficulties of our time, the concerns of our time, but also the joys. In that sense, we too contributed to the work of renewal. But it is also true that it wasn’t an unambiguous process because, as the economy grew, and with it wealth and well-being, a certain moral decay also came in, and without our even imagining it, other negative elements went along with the process of reconstruction.

Already in your seminary days you knew that you would go in different directions. For you music, for your brother the teaching of theology...

Yes, the good God led us along different paths. I had always asked the Lord to work in sacred music, if possible, to sing praises to Him through music. And now when I look back at my life, I have to say that He answered my prayers in truly stupendous fashion. He allowed me to work in the choir of the Cathedral of St Peter in Regensburg, the Regensburger Domspatzen, which I appreciate very much and that has qualities unique perhaps in the Catholic world.

How do you judge the current situation of sacred music in the Church?

The situation varies from place to place and from country to country. As for my own experience, I can say that the Cathedral of Regensburg has a long tradition in the special care of Gregorian chant and classic choral polyphony, that has been well preserved after the Council, but that has, in some way, also gone further. Music has always had its vital importance for the religious life because the spoken word reaches only the ratio while music involves the whole person in praise of God. And even though the modalities may vary, sacred music will always have a great importance. We must ensure that music is handled so as to achieve its proper purpose: that of leading men to God.

One last question, recalling that 29 June of sixty years ago, what has remained in your brother of the young priest of 24?

A good deal, because the gratitude for having received the grace to become a priest has remained. Which is my own gratitude, and I always hope that the joy that we had that day remains in me always, the gratitude for having received the call. Indeed, I hope that this gratitude will grow from year to year.

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