On 1 June the website of the Regensburg Diocese in Bavaria was marked by a simple black banner which read: “Georg Ratzinger ist heimgegangen”. Georg Ratzinger, the composer and former choirmaster of the renowned Regensburg Cathedral Choir, the Domspatzen (The Cathedral Sparrows), “has gone home.”
The website accompanied the news with tribute photos and notes of milestones in Monsignor Ratzinger’s musical life, including the celebration in 1976 of the 1,000 year anniversary of the choir.
After a long period of declining health, Georg died at the age of 96, one day after the anniversary of his priestly ordination in 1951 which he shared with his younger brother Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI.
The closeness of the two elderly brothers, their desire to spend time praying, talking about old times and just pottering with each other, had been a feature of Pope Benedict’s papacy and also in his retirement.
Georg, generally seen as the gruffer and more blunt-speaking of the two men, visited his brother in the Vatican several times a year until his ill-health prevented it. They spoke by phone almost daily.
The Bishop of Regensburg, Rudolf Voderholzers, paid tribute to the musical and aesthetic genius of the older Ratzinger brother, but he also recalled the moving experience he had witnessed between the two brothers in the past fortnight.
Benedict XVI, who is now frail and 93, travelled from his monastic seclusion in the Vatican Gardens to Regensburg to visit his ailing brother for a last time.
Over five days, the Pope Emeritus was able to visit his brother’s bedside nine times and to celebrate Mass with him.
On the Feast of the Sacred Heart the Bishop celebrated the Mass with them. The Bishop sensed the centrality of this devotion to both men and that Benedict’s visit was a pilgrimage from one “homeland” to the eternal one.
He also said that it was clear that the two brothers were nourished even in their old age, by the deep foundational affections and Catholic faith borne out of the “sacrament of love” between their parents.
While in the Diocese, Benedict XVI, with the aid of a wheelchair and his travelling entourage, was able to visit the graves of his parents Maria and Josef and his sister and to visit his former house and his neighbours.
Benedict’s mercy mission, was primarily an intimate and personal trip, but it also coincided with the Festal week of St Wolfgang, which traditionally leads up to the ordination of priests in the diocese of Regensburg.
It is clear that Bishop Volderholzer was personally moved by Benedict’s presence and his links with the Diocese.
Volderholzer is one of the minority of 12 German Bishops who have been arguing within the synodal process, that the haemorraging of Catholic faith in his country should be approached with concerted evangelical renewal and an emphasis upon priestly and lay formation, catechesis and vocational enrichment, rather than by what he sees as the misleading and misguided agenda of the German Bishops’ Conference majority.
Last year, Volderholzer issued a press statement representing the minority position in which he declared:
“In a many-hour debate some improvements were achieved in detail. But I have made it clear on several occasions that the thematic orientation of the [synodal] forums seems to pass by the reality of the crisis of faith in our country.”
In the last week Benedict XVI travelled with the Bishop to the shrine and reliquary of St Wolfgang in the Cathedral, and prayed a litany for the aid of Wolfgang, the patron saint of the Cathedral and city of Regensburg.
Bishop Voderholzer found the visit “emotionally charged” as he was struck by the courage and love as well as the “humble and discreet” greatness of the Pope Emeritus.
He observed that Benedict’s visit to his brother and to his beloved Bavarian landmarks inspired not only the dying Georg, but also the Regensburgers around the two men, filling them with a hopeful sense of the love of Christ and eternal destination of all human life.
“He speaks with a weak voice, almost whispering” observed the Bishop of the Benedict XVI, noting that he had accepted the dependent and frail stages of his life but (he found) Benedict’s analytical clarity, reasoning and memory were “phenomenal.”