Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, brilliant choirmaster and loyal brother to Pope Benedict XVI – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
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Ratzinger at his home in Regensburg, 2005 - TOBIAS SCHWARZ/Reuters
Ratzinger at his home in Regensburg, 2005 - TOBIAS SCHWARZ/Reuters

Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who has died aged 96, was the elder brother of Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He was also the most distinguished German choirmaster of his generation.

After a quiet life devoted to music and prayer, Georg found himself, as the only surviving papal sibling, dragged out of retirement at the age of 81 to satisfy the hunger of the world’s media for stories about the new Pope’s background.

Though nearly blind and suffering from a heart condition, Mgr Ratzinger gave dozens of interviews, and in particular was able to shed valuable light on the most controversial episode of the Pope’s life: his experience of the Third Reich.

Georg Ratzinger was born at Marktl am Inn in Upper Bavaria on January 15 1924, three years before his brother Joseph. The Ratzinger family had already played a significant part in the history of German Catholicism.

A great-uncle after whom Georg was named had been a leading 19th-century Bavarian politician, journalist and economist, a close friend of the great liberal Catholic theologian and opponent of papal infallibility, Ignaz von Döllinger .

The two brothers were naturally proud of their celebrated ancestor, especially his defence of the poor and his opposition to child labour. They were less proud of the role he played in the rise of anti-Semitism in Bavaria.

The branch of the family in which Georg, Joseph and their elder sister Maria Ratzinger grew up was, however, firmly opposed to the Nazis. Their father, a police superintendent, was obliged to move four times during their youth for political reasons: in 1929 to Tittmoning, in 1932 to Aschau am Inn, and in 1937 to the village of Hufschlag near Traunstein.

The brothers (Georg on the right) celebrated their first Masses in 1951 - AP
The brothers (Georg on the right) celebrated their first Masses in 1951 - AP

It was at Traunstein that both brothers entered the seminary. Having hitherto resisted pressure to join the Hitler Youth, first Georg and then Joseph succumbed in 1941. Joseph later explained that he had been able to avoid attendance, thanks to a sympathetic Nazi maths teacher.

Neighbours who remembered the Ratzinger boys confirmed that neither of them participated willingly in Nazi organisations. Joseph never tried to hide his participation, but he testified to his dismay when, as a soldier in 1944, he saw Hungarian Jews being sent to Auschwitz.

George, left, with Joseph, right, newly ordained in 1951  - Reuters
George, left, with Joseph, right, newly ordained in 1951 - Reuters

The Ratzingers were not active members of the German resistance, but their refusal to compromise their Catholicism marked them as anti-Nazi. According to Georg, their father took considerable personal risks in order to ensure that his sons were not indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda.

During the early years of the war, for example, they listened to Allied radio broadcasts. “It was strictly forbidden,” Georg recalled. “Anyone who was caught would be sent to the concentration camps, so we did it secretively. The German news was not true, and he wanted to hear from the foreign services what was really happening.”

The brothers remained at the seminary until 1942, when it was requisitioned as a military hospital. Georg, now 18, was drafted into the Wehrmacht, while Joseph returned to the grammar school until 1943, when he was sent to work on anti-aircraft batteries and conscripted a year later.

In 1944, Georg was wounded in battle in Italy, but he was later taken prisoner and held by the Americans at a PoW camp near Naples. Meanwhile Joseph, who never saw action, had been reassigned to his home district.

In April 1945 he deserted, narrowly escaping summary execution in the last days of the war. Within a few weeks of the German surrender, the brothers were reunited with their family in Traunstein. They later returned to the seminary, where they remained until 1947.

After four more years of study in Munich, Georg and Joseph were ordained in the cathedral of Freising on the same day in 1951 by Cardinal Faulhaber. The brother priests then celebrated their first Mass, or Primiz, one after the other in the village church at Hufschlag, a memorable event attended by more than 1,000 people, culminating in a magnificent Te Deum.

Music played a large part in the Ratzinger household. Georg later recalled how, in 1941, he heard his first performance of Mozart at a concert given by the Regensburger Domspatzen, the Ratisbon Cathedral choir known as “Sparrows”. He was so ecstatic that he could not sleep all night.

Georg Ratzinger with Pope Benedict - Daniel Karmann/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Georg Ratzinger with Pope Benedict - Daniel Karmann/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Georg’s love of Mozart was infectious, and Joseph, too, acquired a lifelong habit of playing Mozart or Beethoven every day (“Brahms is too difficult!”) on the piano. Cardinal Meisner of Cologne later nicknamed Joseph Ratzinger the “Mozart of theology”, and Georg approved: “My brother’s theology is not as problematic and difficult as that of Karl Rahner… Directness, clarity and form: his work does seem to have these elements in common with Mozart’s music.”

Georg’s musical talent became apparent at the seminary in Munich. While Joseph was a brilliant theologian, Georg combined church music with work as a diocesan priest. In 1957 he took over the choir at Traunstein, and in 1964 he achieved his life’s ambition when he was appointed choirmaster at Ratisbon Cathedral.

The Regensburger Domspatzen are the most famous cathedral choir in Germany and the closest to the English choral tradition: they have their own grammar school and during Mgr Ratzinger’s three decades in the post the Sparrows celebrated their 1,000th anniversary. It was under his inspired leadership, however, that the choir became known to an international audience, thanks to tours all over the world and its unsurpassed recordings for Deutsche Grammophon’s prestigious Archiv series.

Mgr Ratzinger extended the choral repertoire by rediscovering music of the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. His taste was catholic rather than Catholic in any exclusive sense. Perhaps the Sparrows’ finest recording was that of the Psalms of David, a vast and neglected cycle by the Protestant composer Heinrich Schütz.

To hear the Regensburger Domspatzen in situ under Mgr Ratzinger was an unforgettable experience. Not surprisingly, they were chosen to honour many visiting dignitaries, from Queen Elizabeth II to Pope John Paul II.

In 1977 the Sparrows sang at Joseph’s consecration as Archbishop of Munich and Freising. Soon afterwards he received the Cardinal’s red hat, but until he moved to Rome in 1981, when John Paul II appointed him Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the brother priests saw each other almost daily. Their sister Maria kept house for them until her death in 1991.

Benedict XVI and Mgr Georg Ratzinger listen the concert of the Orchestra and Chorus of Bavarian radio in the Vatican, 2007  - GIUSEPPE GIGLIA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Benedict XVI and Mgr Georg Ratzinger listen the concert of the Orchestra and Chorus of Bavarian radio in the Vatican, 2007 - GIUSEPPE GIGLIA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In 1994 Mgr Ratzinger retired as a papal chaplain, prelate and pronotary while also holding German and Austrian civil decorations.

Joseph’s elevation to the papacy did not, as Georg feared, mean an end to their convivial reunions. When Georg suffered a heart attack in 2005, the Pope visited him in hospital.

But on Benedict XVI’s 79th birthday in 2006, Georg sent him the following heartfelt message from his sickbed: “Dear Joseph, Oremus pro invicem [Let us pray for one another]. May God give us, in these last years of life toward which we are heading, a minimum of fraternal communion with the joy and warmth of old.”

Georg Ratzinger was perhaps the closest person to his brother the Pope, especially after their sister Maria’s death. This closeness only deepened when Benedict had retired to a former convent in the Vatican gardens, where Georg was a frequent guest.

During Georg’s last illness the Pope Emeritus, by this time very frail, was flown to Germany by the Italian air force, his only trip outside Italy after retirement, to be with his brother at the end.

Georg Ratzinger, born January 15 1924, died July 1 2020