Sunday, April 13, 2008

Pope Benedict: A Genius Rises from Impoverished Childhood

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From Father George Welzbacher's "Pastor's Page." St John's of St Paul
An interesting article about Pope Benedict's family background appeared in the March 30th issue of Our Sunday Visitor. The article was written by Brennan Pursell, professor of history at DeSales University and author of the recent biography Benedict of Bavaria (Circle Press, $24.95). Professor Pursell mentions Pope Benedict's older brother, Monsignor George Ratzinger, a prestigious figure in the world of Church Music and a friend of our own archdiocese's Monsignor Richard Schuler, former, pastor of St. Agnes Parish in St. Paul. When Monsignor Schuler passed away on April 20th, 2007, Pope Benedict sent to the parishioners of St. Agnes a gracious telegram of condolence.

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A Genius Rises from Impoverished Childhood
By Brennan Pursell
A Vatican journalist who writes for one of the most prominent U. S. newspapers once confided to me: "You know, I write about the pope all the time. I've shaken his hand, followed him on his travels, and have been a few yards away any number of times. But I really have no idea of who he is." Many people in our country who lack a journalist's access are in the same predicament.
The best way to get close to Pope Benedict XVI, to learn about his character and how his mind works, is to read [and to read, in particular, his own voluminous publications]. Since his election, scores of people who have known him for many years, some since his childhood, have come forward to share their stories, some in the form of radio and TV interviews, some in books, but mostly in articles in periodicals.
There was another flood of material when the pope made his apostolic journey to his Bavarian homeland in 2006, but it is all in German. Almost nothing has been translated into English.
The pope is a paradox: an intellectual genius who is proudly the son of a small-town constable.
Let's begin with his genius. As of 2002, the printed bibliography of his publications ran 80 pages long, including translations. His theological works have become scholarly benchmarks and popular best-sellers.
He is the first Catholic bishop to be elected to the French Academy since the founder, Cardinal Richelieu. The academy gave him the spot-they are limited to 40- previously occupied by Russian physicist and humanitarian Andrei Sakharov. Astronomers have named an asteroid after him (Ratzinger 8661)
For years a number of people have called him "the Mozart of theology" because he dictates finished text, much the way Mozart wrote music, virtually free of error. His former students, secretaries and co-workers all testify that he speaks in paragraphs, thinks in chapters and writes his books in a single draft.
He often knows quotations verbatim, in up to 10 languages, sometimes from sources he had not read for many years. Imagine a human being who has been leaming for 75 years, and remembers virtually all of it.
And now the other half of the paradox. Last year, when an old friend of the pope's met him at the Vatican, Pope Benedict shook his hand warmly and said, in the Bavarian dialect, "Wir Gendarmenbuam mussn z'ammhaften," which literally means, "We policemen's sons have to stick together."
The pope was born into a family on one of the lower rungs of the Bavarian middle class. He lived his first years in apartments, usually right above the local police station, in small farming towns in Bavaria's southeast, which even today is the poorest, most rural part of the state. His possessions amounted to three toys, one being a well- worn teddy bear.
Only when his fatlier retired, and war was on the horizon, did his parents put their limited capital into buying a house, which was a decrepit barn with the living space under the same roof as the stalls and the hay loft. There was no running water and no amenities apart from a bit of electricity. The roof leaked perpetually.
And yet for little Joseph Patizinger, this house was an enchanted castle. His mother kept a large garden that nourished the family throughout the lean 1940's, and she worked as a seasonal cook to make ends meet.
The pope never said he suffered deprivation as a child. He knows that his humble circumstances were a gift, for they taught him to appreciate deeply the simpler pleasures in life.
The humility of his culture is a cast of mind. He bears himself today with the same reserve that characterizes many of his countrymen.
Throughout the whole of his life, he never sought to amass material fortune or to take the center stage. Toward the end of the last pontificate, hec learly stated that he was"a man of the second row. "
His family of five was solid, loving (in warm affection and firm discipline) and devoted to the Catholic faith. He learned his simple, unconditional piety from his parents, in word and deed. He once described himself as "a perfectly ordinary Christian," as opposed to a mystic. He saw how many simple, hardworking, devout Bavarian farmers remained committed to their faith when the pathology that was Nazism told them to worship the land and the blood of the Aryan race instead.
He watched in dismay as the disease infected the German state and society, and especially how many intellectuals and "leaders of society" fell prey to it. During his career in the Church, he has always sought to defend the faith of the simple from the ingenious arguments of cutting edge theologians, literary figures and cultural commentators.
To this day, the pope identifies himself with the baroque Catholicism of Bavaria in all ways: its sumptuous church architecture and decor, its solemn liturgies and its joyous festivals.

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Let's storm the heavens this coming week with our prayers that God will protect Pope Benedict during his visit to our shores and that his audience-bishops, Catholic educators, clergy and laity, and the American people at large-will take his words to heart. His apostolic visit is an occasion of grace.

Ad multos annos, Pater Sancte!
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