VATICAN CITY — Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was laid to rest Thursday after tens of thousands attended his funeral, officiated by his successor, Pope Francis.
Shortly before his death, in early December, German historian, archeologist, and prolific author Michael Hesemann met with the late Pope Emeritus on what would be his last annual visit with his friend.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Wire, Hesemann recounted — through email — intimate moments of friendship and brotherhood he shared with the Ratzinger brothers, and how the loss of both men in a span of a few years has impacted his life.
DW: Michael, how (and when) did you become acquainted with the Ratzinger brothers?
Hesemann: My uncle, who was one of the leading ophthalmologists in our country, Prof. Siegfried Niedermeier, knew and treated Cardinal Ratzinger since the mid-1990’s. They met several times during their vacations in Tyrolia, so my aunt is in possession of dozens of letters, handwritten by him during that time.
In 1998, I met Cardinal Ratzinger for the first time and presented him with my book “The Title of The Cross”, on the venerated relic in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce, which he seemed to like. In the year 2000, I met Archbishop Gänswein (Secretary to then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) for the first time, who translated my interview with Cardinal Bertone for the publication of “The Third Secret of Fatima.” In 2005, after Ratzinger’s election, I was commissioned to write a portrait of (now) Pope Benedict XVI for young readers who came to the World Youth Day in Cologne. From this moment on, I became an ardent supporter of his Pontificate.
As one of the founding members of “Germany Pro Papa”, a Catholic initiative defending him against unfair media campaigns, I began preparing for his visit in 2011. Just prior to this visit, in December 2010, I met his brother Georg the first time. Georg agreed to write a book with me, “My Brother, The Pope”, to be published for the Papal visit. We became friends and so I visited him every other month until his death in July 2020. He was the kindest, most gentle, most wonderful fatherly friend you could ever imagine. Through him I learned to understand Joseph, his younger brother, so much better.
Also, I met Pope Benedict XVI once a year, with exemption of the COVID-years, and always enjoyed his warmth and wisdom. After this personal experience with both Ratzinger brothers I can attest what a great loss the world has just experienced.
DW: What did you observe in the relationship between Georg and Joseph?
Hesemann: First of all, how close the two brothers were. The Ratzingers always were family people and indeed, until his death in July 2020, Georg was not only the brother, but also the closest confidant of Pope Benedict. No wonder he was the first who ever learned about Benedict’s planned abdication, even before Archbishop Gänswein, his personal secretary.
When I wrote the book “My Brother, The Pope” with him, I understood the reason for it. In the turbulent times of his childhood, during the Nazi dictatorship, the family was a kind of Noah’s Ark in the flood of this anti-christian ideology. Their parents managed to educate them to distrust the Nazis and to withstand their ideology plus all the temptations of the Zeitgeist and stand together for each other. Their focus became their deep Christian faith. They were the best example for the American saying “a family that prays together stays together” and indeed they prayed the rosary every day, kneeling on the stone-paved kitchen floor.
You might still wonder, how from a rather poor and simple family background — the father a village policeman, the mother a cook — two geniuses arose, Georg, the composer and world-famous Choir master and Joseph, the greatest theologian of our times and 264th successor of St. Peter. The answer is: It was the richness and beauty of their Catholic faith and its culture.
DW: Tell me about their personalities — what details might most people not know about the Ratzinger brothers, aside from friends and family?
Hesemann: Well, they had completely different personalities. Georg was extroverted, he liked to be amongst people, he liked a “Schnapserl” — a glass of sweet liquor with his many guests — he was direct and outspoken and his great love and talent, besides God and the Catholic Church, was classical music.
Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI) was introverted and shy, a “book worm” — an intellectual who became the “Mozart of Theology”. Like his brother, he loved music, too, and even played the piano when he was Pope. But his real talent was theology, the description of the heavenly realities with earthly words. He never liked many people around him, he preferred solitude. And if he was really persuaded to take a glass of Prosecco or even beer, he’d say he felt tipsy after drinking just half of it. He preferred Fanta, a German soda.
Both brothers shared a common dream to spend the rest of their life together in Regensburg, Germany. Instead, after the death of John Paul II, when Joseph was elected Pope, Georg was so depressed that he did not answer the phone for a whole day. And Joseph, in his first audience for the German pilgrims, compared his election with an execution: “When the guillotine fell down on me…” He accepted the will of God, but he certainly did not desire to become Pope.
DW: Would you provide some memories of Joseph — experiences that you’re willing to share with people to give them a more “personal” feeling of him?
Hesemann: It would be my pleasure. One time, in the summer of 2015, I was invited to join the Morning Mass of the Papa emerito in the chapel of his monastery Mater Ecclesiae. Afterwards, Archbishop Gänswein invited me to meet Benedict in the sacristy. We had a nice conversation and at the end, I asked him: “Holy Father, would you mind if Archbishop Gänswein would take a picture of us?” “Not at all,” he replied. So I opened my bag, grabbed my Nikon and handed it over to to him. “Finally someone with a real camera!”, Benedict exclaimed with an emotional release. “Imagine, Mr. Hesemann, people take pictures of me with their telephones!” I smiled, not being part of the “Instagram Generation,” and nodded in agreement. “Well, Holy Father, they always want a kind of” – and then I used a typical Bavarian expression – “egg-laying-wool-milk-pig, a device that does everything but make decent phone calls.” He started to laugh — he had a wonderful sense of humor — and replied: “You are so right!” “But I am old-fashioned”, I told him, “for me a phone is a phone and a camera is a camera!” I admit that we were both dinosaurs of the 20th century, but to see the Pope laughing about my simple joke was just wonderful. Although being a great intellectual and spiritual giant, he was always so down to earth.
The other anecdote I have shows his profound wisdom and holiness. After he turned 90, in 2017, I had an appointment with him in the Vatican Gardens, at the Lourdes Grotto, to congratulate him: “Holy Father, I wish you many more years in good health, strength and spirits, blessed by God!” He looked at me with a serious expression, rising his right index finger, and admonished me: “Mr. Hesemann, please don’t wish me that!” I was shocked. “But, Holy Father, you have such a good life here in the beautiful Vatican Gardens” was the only thing I could say, before his index finger went even higher: “Heaven is much more beautiful!” And yes, he indeed lived with one foot in the heavenly kingdom already, when he was still here on earth.
DW: When was the last time you spoke with Pope Benedict — what did you speak of, do you recall some of his words?
Hesemann: It was on December 10, so I might have been one of his last visitors. I was invited both, to present him my new book and to congratulate him on the occasion of his 95th birthday. We spoke on a wide variety of subjects: The situation of the Church in Germany, my new book, my research on Pius XII, the death of the great Jesuit historian Fr. Peter Gumpel in October, but also on personal matters like the death of my beloved dog just ten days before — and, of course, Christmas, which he still celebrated in the Bavarian style.
I had brought him some typical German Christmas sweets, which he appreciated, and a portrait of St. Augustine, his favorite teacher of the Church. He was warm and affectionate like always, although it was obvious that it was difficult for him to speak and often enough he was difficult to understand so that Archbishop Gänswein had to repeat his words.
Still, I was impressed by his great memory. For example, he clearly remembered a discussion between Fr. Gumpel and Hans Küng during the Second Vatican Council some 60 years ago. He also tried to remember his encounter with Conchita, one of the seers of Garabandal, in the 1980’s. I felt it would be our last meeting so I thanked him for everything, for the great inspiration his pontificate was for me and that without him I would not be who I am today. I asked him to pray for me and he promised to do so.
DW: Was he ill when you saw him?
Hesemann: He was already sitting in his armchair when I was brought into his room on the first floor. It was obvious that he was physically weak and had problems with his respiratory system. I knew it would be our last encounter on earth. But, of course, I am not a physician, so any attempt at a diagnosis would be irresponsible.
DW: Much of our readership may not be Catholic — what do you consider his legacies, and what would you like the world to remember about Pope Benedict?
Hesemann: First of all, he was the greatest theologian of our times. Anybody who wants to understand the Gospel, wants to understand what Christianity and Catholicism is all about, finds reliable and profound answers in his books. He has been called “the Mozart of Theology”, because he writes in a simple, most beautiful style, so everyone without any theological background can enjoy his books. To define the teachings of the Church for the modern world with such brilliance and enlightenment makes him a true Teacher of the Church.
In his Pontificate, he revealed the beauty of Christ’s teachings, indeed the beauty of heaven to the world, to all of us.
But he was not only a teacher, but also a man of prayer and profound saintliness. He lived and deeply believed what he taught. For him, there was no difference between theory and life. To follow his example and his teachings can make all of us not only better Christians, but better men and women — and open the gates of heaven!
DW: Many of those who have responded negatively to Pope Benedict have criticized his orthodoxy. Others have claimed he covered up for sex abusers. Still others blame him for the current state of the Church, having resigned. As a historian, you have defended Pope Pius XII. How will you answer Benedict’s critics?
Hesemann: All these claims are absurd. He did not cover up for sex abusers, he laicized about 800 priests who were found guilty of sexual abuse and met their victims on nearly every Papal trip. Despite doing more than anyone in the Vatican — including Pope St. John Paul II — to end the child abuse crisis, the world tries to lay it at his doorstep.
His orthodoxy was right, because his job as Pope was to preserve the faith and the teachings of Christ, not to water them down. Isn’t it absurd? He was the gentlest of souls and the world sees him as a terrifying Inquisitor, a Rottweiler. “There are also gentle Rottweilers,” was his reply.
His resignation was difficult for me to accept, too, but it only shows his great love for the Church. Benedict XVI had a minor stroke during his trip to the Caribbean and his physicians told him that he might have another, major stroke at any time. He was afraid that he would be paralyzed and unable to guide the Church, a situation even worse than the last years of John Paul II. So he acted out of his profound feeling of responsibility and love for the Church, and we have to respect this decision.
When I met him in October 2013, just half a year after his resignation, he was sure he would only have a few more months to live, so weak he felt at that time. It was a miracle that he recovered and spent another ten years in prayer for the Church, but nobody could have predicted this before. Still, he sacrificed the rest of his life, his plans, everything to fulfill what he considered to be God’s will. To give priority to the will of God and the fate of the Church, to step behind, to recognize his limits and accept it in humbleness and humility, characterizes him as a true saint, indeed.
He stands in front of His Eternal Judge right now and will recognize that He is his best friend. At the same time, I am sure he will experience God’s love and enjoy heaven, his ultimate goal, the eternal peace, the infinite beauty and ultimate bliss he truly deserves.
We’re not great at recognizing holiness. But from my Christian heart I’ll give the world a hint: I suspect a very holy man just passed away and the world will be poorer for it. Soon, I expect we will miss him, but hopefully then we will also recognize what a spiritual giant we had and how blessed we were when he lived among us.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.