Written by Msgr. Georg Ratzinger
(Ignatius Press, 2011)
Reviewed by Colin Kerr
* This review originally appeared in the first issue of the CRB: Lent, 2014
This was one of the more exciting releases of 2011. However, with Benedict’s resignation on February 28th of the following year, the book received less attention than it deserved. When Cardinal Ratzinger released his Milestones in 1998 (covering the years of his life from 1927 to 1977), it was a most excellent book, but one, alas, that left a gaping hole of curiosity behind it. It was hoped that a second volume would follow, to cover his years as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Of course, others had provided snap shots of that phase of his life – primarily his enemies, though: Küng, Häring, and Curran, to name a few. Interest in the life of the man only grew after his ascension to the papacy, but by then readers of Milestones were resigned to the fact that a second volume was likely never to be written. In 1997 he had requested ‘retirement’ from the doctrinal congregation from John Paul II, and to take over the far less prestigious, but, to him, more pleasant task of running the Vatican Library. That would have been an opportunity for a great deal of writing! But, of course, that never happened, and so his fans had to take solace in his other writings, like his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, and the studies of his life and thought by various theologians, like Aiden Nichols’ and Vincent Twomey’s. None of these had the same charm of Milestones, though. How could they? When it came to light that his brother, Msgr. Georg, whom we all knew as the unassuming, supportive brother of the great theologian-pope, was writing a book about his brother, excitement grew. If your experience is like mine – like that outlined above – then you will want to read this book back-to-front, starting with those parts not dealt with by Milestones. Of course, Georg offers a lot of additional information about the period that Josef had already covered in Milestones, so it too is definitely worth reading. Nevertheless, the final forty or so pages are the best.
The book was not written by G. Ratzinger, but was dictated by him to Michael Hessman, and so is a bit of a hotchpotch of direct narration, narrator-provided background information and quote from the Pope Emeritus. Occasionally you have to remind yourself who is speaking. Despite this, even in translation, it bears the distinct character of a holy, elderly German priest, whose tendency to understate things is reminiscent of his great brother too. A particularly funny passage relates to the time of the election: “Throughout that evening and then again well into the following afternoon the telephone rang nonstop, yet now it did not matter to me at all. I simply did not answer. “Nuts to you”, I thought to myself!” (p. 231) There are some very interesting passages that relate to the brothers’ seminary formation together, but generally speaking Msgr. Georg knew very little about the inside story of the controversies surrounding the great theologian. He had no desire to know. Yet he was deeply attached to his brother. I would like to think that I shall be as attached to my brothers at 70 as they were and are to each other. This is not propagandistic in the least, which air some of the literature about John Paul II has. There are no superlatives in this book; at least there are none from hand of Msgr. Georg himself. In fact, upon occasion, I found myself wanting to exclaim, “Don’t you know that your brother was a theological genius, and that is why he was made professor, bishop, Prefect of the SCDF, and then pope!” That, however, is not Msgr. Georg’s style. Instead we get, “He was always conscientious and bore every responsibility that was imposed on him to the best of his ability.” (p. 251)