Family: The primary place of faith formation

Father John A. Kiley

Pope Benedict XVI’s elder brother, Father George Ratzinger, has collaborated in authoring a book on the family life that the two Ratzinger sons, George and Joseph, shared with their parents and with each other during most of the decades of the last century.

Born into the unstable Weimar Republic of the 1920s, raised during the tumultuous years of Hitler’s ascendancy and the Second World War, ordained into the resolutely traditional and pleasantly colorful Catholicism of Bavarian Germany, the brothers both had notable vocations long before Rome and the papacy entered the picture.

Father George, the elder brother, is a distinguished musician and choral director whose talent is certainly suited to the baroque opulence that characterizes the Catholic Church in Bavaria. His younger sibling, Joseph, has been recognized as a brilliant theologian and university instructor during the post-war and Vatican II era. Both men have had ecclesiastical careers of which the German Catholic Church can be proud. That one of them should become Supreme Pontiff simply confirms the gifts and charisms these brothers have enjoyed since their youth.

Father George Ratzinger’s new book, “My Brother, the Pope,” has been seen by reviewers as an inspiration for everyone who esteems the basic values of Catholic family life. In an age of single parenting, divorce, co-habitation, contraception, abortion, same-sex unions, abuse and dysfunction, the Ratzinger family introduced in the pages of this book is a pattern for every Catholic family. The Ratzingers – father, mother and sons – had to resist the Nazi spirit of their age just as contemporary families nowadays have to resist the secularizing influences of modern times. The Ratzingers were not cut off from Nazi influence; they were surrounded by it and even involved in it, however unwillingly. Yet the Ratzinger family had resources that the pope’s elder brother fondly recalls as the foundation of their strength and a guide for their spiritual direction. Inwardly, parents and sons both had a profound personal faith in God, in grace and in the supernatural. Outwardly, the family appreciated the conventional Catholic tradition that had so long been at the heart of Bavarian society. Sacramental celebrations, Marian feasts, church processions, liturgical festivities, the lives of the saints, trips to shrines, parish devotions – these common religious activities gave the Ratzingers a strong Catholic identity that sheltered them or, better, toughened them against the godless society that was overtaking Germany.

The Bavarian church’s external religious traditions fortified the personal faith which the two boys had absorbed at home. Such internal and external supports were the secret to their durable and fruitful Catholicism.

While Father George Ratzinger was promoting his book in Germany, his younger brother Benedict XVI has been promoting the Year of Faith that the pope intends to launch this coming autumn. In addressing bishops, the pope highlighted the primary need for supernatural faith at this time in history which since the 1960s has been characterized by a worldwide crisis in faith. This crisis of faith clearly has been aggravated by a crisis in the transmission of faith. The pope alarmingly lamented the “fruitlessness of current evangelization,” due to the influence of modern culture which makes the transmission of the faith particularly difficult, challenging both the worldwide church as well as Christian families. Perhaps recalling his own childhood experience the pope observed, “The primary place for the transmission of faith is identified in the family. There the faith is communicated to young people who, in the family, learn both the contents and practice of Christian faith. The indispensable efforts of families are then extended by catechesis in ecclesial institutions, especially through the liturgy with the sacraments and the homily, or by giving space to parish missions, popular piety, movements, and ecclesial communities.” What the pope and his brother understand to be the secret of their own spiritual success is exactly what the pope and his bishops now recommend for the church’s success in a new generation.

The domestic church, exercised in the midst of the universal church, always has been and always will be the Christian community’s greatest source of personal strength and surest guide to communal fulfillment.