As I write this the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is taking place in Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City, before the burial in a crypt beneath St Peter’s Basilica.
The former pope died on New Year’s Eve at the age of 95, nearly a decade after he stood down due to ill health.
His last words were heard in the middle of the night by a nurse. It was around 3 o’clock in the morning of December 30, several hours before he died. He said in Italian, “Lord, I love You”.
With the given name of Joseph Ratzinger, the man who would become the first German pope in 1,000 years was baptized on the day he was born, which in that year 1927 fell on Easter Saturday.
He grew up in southern Germany in a pious and happy family with his sister Maria and brother Georg. These were difficult years, for less than a decade earlier the First World War had ended in a disastrous defeat for the Germans. People who had long suffered turmoil and violence were still reeling from the economic straits in which they found themselves after the war.
Throughout the 1920s, a young political activist named Adolf Hitler agitated for action to help Germany emerge from its woes. When the Nazis came to power Joseph, along with his class was also enlisted in the Hitler Youth movement in 1943, although he did not attend their meetings. As the son of the local policeman, there was no possibility of avoiding the movement which had by now become compulsory.
A Man of Learning
From an early age, Joseph displayed an interest in learning, as well as a love for music. In those days, the Mass was celebrated in Latin. Joseph had begun to learn the language in school and soon fell in love with its poetic cadences. It introduced him to the world of the liturgy, where he felt heaven and earth touch. It also marked the beginning of a life – long fascination with the liturgy and its treasures.
In the months following the end of the Second World War Germans gradually came to learn about the full horrors of what had been perpetuated in their name. Joseph would later cite wartime cruelties as one of the reasons for his vocation.
Prior to his election as pope Ratzinger had a long and distinguished career as a theologian and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He wrote 60 books between 1963 and 2013. He also served as an expert assistant at the Second Vatican Council from 1962 – 1965.
During this time, he was progressive in his thinking and opposed to those who hoped to limit reform. However, his experiences of the student protests in ‘the year of 68’ while he was teaching in Tübingen reminded him of the tactics of the Nazis and gradually led him to adopt a more conservative theological perspective. His conservatism would lead to him being given the name, ‘God’s Rottweiler’ because as a Cardinal entrusted with enforcing doctrinal purity, he was uncompromising in his defense of Church teachings on all matters.
Creatures of God
It could be claimed on a lighter note that ‘God’s Rottweiler” identified more with cats than dogs of any breed. He was a lifelong cat lover, and they returned his devotion. He claimed that it was growing up in the Bavarian countryside where he first learned to bond with animals. His older brother Georg said in an interview before his death that the Ratzinger family had their own cats when they lived in Hulschlag, “along with others who passed through the gardens.”
While he was a cardinal and living in Rome, he fed the strays that gathered around his residence. Once about 10 cats followed him into the Vatican, and one of the Swiss Guards intervened, saying, “Look, your eminence, the cats are invading the Holy See.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict is the only pope to have a book about him written by a cat! In 2008, a cat called Chico featured in a children’s “autobiography” with the title Joseph and Chico: The Life of Pope Benedict XVI as Told by a Cat. Chico was indeed a real red tabby who belonged to the Ratzinger’s neighbours in Pentling, Bavaria. The ‘human’ author’ was Jeanne Perego, an Italian writer and journalist. Archbishop Georg Gänswein , the pope’s personal secretary, wrote in the book’s introduction; “The pope also loves cats and all animals because they are creatures of God.”
After Benedict XVI retired to Mater Ecclesia Monastery inside the walls of Vatican City State, he continued to greet some of the cats who lived in the Vatican gardens, 2 in particular Contessa and Zorro.
For many, the late pope’s love of cats remains one of their most special memories of the man who served as Vicar of Christ from 19 April 2005 to 28 February, 20132013.
Ar dheis Dégo raibh a h’anam dílis.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan