"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Monday, March 5, 2012

My Brother the Pope

Of the writing of books about the papacy there is no end. One may divide those into three broad and by no means exclusive categories at least: biography (of the incumbents), history (of the institution), and theology (of the munera or offices). I have of course had a few things to say about the latter in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity

One cannot separate the office entirely from the man, no matter how certain apologists for, say, Alexander VI or Honorius I may wish to do so. And the lives of the nearly 300 men who have held this office often make for fascinating, not to say titillating, reading. Individual biographies for many prominent popes abound while some languish in total, and often deserved, obscurity. Good surveys are notoriously hard to produce effectively, though I have argued that Eamon Duffy succeeds admirably in his Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (3rd ed.) (Yale, 2006).

Since the papacy of Pope John Paul II (for whom George Weigel's Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II--
notwithstanding its occasionally hagiographic tone and equally occasional propensity for exaggerated statements as, e.g., when treating that vastly over-rated "theology of the body" business--is far and away the best of the many biographies written about that pope, all of which I have suffered through as a penance for my myriad sins) we have had two additional categories of writings: book-length interviews and quasi-memoirs, the most recent of which, by Pope Benedict XVI, generated a great deal of sound and fury, as I noted in my lengthy discussion of it here. Now to this vast library of books, we may add a new genre: books by the pope's family--in this case, Georg Ratzinger: My Brother, the Pope (Ignatius, 2012), 

About this book, the publisher tells us:

It wasn't always the case that Msgr. Georg Ratzinger lived in the shadow of his younger brother, Joseph. Georg was an accomplished musician, who for over 30 years directed the Regensburger Domspatzchor, the world-famous boys choir of the Regensburg cathedral. Brother Joseph was a brilliant young professor, but mostly known in German academic circles.
Now Georg writes about the close friendship that has united these two brothers for more than 80 years. This book is a unique window on an extraordinary family that lived through the difficult period of National Socialism in Germany. Those interested in knowing more about the early life of Benedict XVI will not be disappointed. They will also learn of the admirable character and inspiring example of the parents, and see how the Catholic faith can shape not just a family, but an entire culture-in this case, that of Bavaria.
Georg's reminiscences are detailed, intimate, and warm. And while they begin with the earliest years of the Ratzinger family, they continue right up to the present day. This is not simply a book to satisfy curiosity about a "celebrity", though it certainly does that. It's a beautiful portrait of Catholic family life and, in the most literal sense, of enduring fraternal charity. Georg has a talent for telling a story, and the co-author fills in some of the larger historical background. The many photographs, both in black and white and in color, round out a thoroughly enjoyable and inspirational book. Illustrated with 47 photographs.
I look forward to reading this book, not least because I am sure it will continue to make known the charming, humble, and winsome man whom I briefly met in Rome in 1998 and who was elected nearly seven years ago now even though he never wanted to work in Rome at all and has for many years longed for release from those labors. Those who actually bestirred themselves to read Ratzinger--as I did, and not just his excellent books, especially The Spirit of the Liturgy, but also the several book-length interviews he has given, most famously in The Ratzinger Report--will have found in them, and even more fully in his charming if incomplete Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977incontrovertible evidence of a man completely different from the media caricature of him as some vindictive, punitive Panzerkardinal. That mendacious and malevolent image of him, tediously and tendentiously generated and mindlessly recycled over many years, would be risible were it not so cruel and dishonest. 

Eastern Christians, in particular, should look on Benedict as someone who understands them perhaps even better than his famous Slavic predecessor, and who has for decades now been advancing arguments about the need for reform to the papacy (arguments I treat in my  
Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy) very much along Orthodox lines. Famously, i
n 1976, while a simple priest, Ratzinger, at a lecture in Graz, uttered what has come to be called the "Ratzinger formula" (reprinted in the 1987 book Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology)
Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than what had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium . . . Rome need not ask for more. Reunion could take place in this context if, on the one hand, the East would cease to oppose as heretical the developments that took place in the West in the second millennium and would accept the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form she had acquired in the course of that development, while, on the other hand, the West would recognize the Church of the East as orthodox and legitimate in the form she has always had.

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