There was no live tweeting, Facebook livestreaming, or Instagram selfies. With no fanfare, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI left the Vatican to go home to his beloved Bavaria. It was the first known departure for the retired pope outside Rome since he withdrew from the papacy and public life in February 2013. The reason, of course, as everything is for him, was spiritual — in this case, to pray and celebrate Mass with his older brother, Fr. Georg Ratzinger. Now 96, the pope’s older brother, bedridden and no longer able to see, is in seriously ill health. Benedict, 93, summoned enough strength to travel, accompanied by his doctor, nurse, and personal secretary, Archbishop Gänswein. The pope emeritus conferred with Pope Francis before embarking on the voyage.
Benedict arrived in Munich on the afternoon of June 18 and was met by Bishop Voderholzer of the Diocese of Regensburg. He then journeyed to Regensburg where he lodged in the diocesan seminary in between visits with his brother. It was here in the idyllic town off the Danube where Benedict, as Professor Joseph Ratzinger, taught at the University of Regensburg in the 1970s. It was also the locale of one of Pope Benedict XVI’s most important speeches as pope, The Regensburg Lecture, in 2006.
This time, less than two weeks before Georg and Joseph were to celebrate their 69th anniversary of their priestly ordinations — they were ordained at the same time, on June 29, 1951, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul — this personal pilgrimage was something of both a homecoming and farewell. The Ratzinger brothers hail from the southern part of Germany. But to natives of that land, it is affectionately known as Bavaria. Rustic, picturesque, and an historically Catholic land, Bavaria shaped the personal piety and intellectual rigor of Georg and Joseph. That the two brothers both became priests reveals the faith of their parents and the faith community of their childhood.
Joseph and Georg celebrated Mass together on June 18, and again on June 19, the Feast of the Sacred Heart. They snacked on apple strudel afterwards. The two priests celebrated Mass on Saturday morning, June 20. The Diocese of Regensburg reported that “the pope emeritus is exhausted but full of joy.” Archbishop Dr. Nikola Eterović, Germany’s apostolic nuncio, visited that afternoon from Berlin. That same day, Pope Benedict visited the cemetery where his parents, Joseph and Maria, are buried. (The Ratzinger brothers’ sister, Maria, died in 1991.) Benedict intoned an Our Father and Hail Mary at the gravesite.
On the final full day of his visit, the brothers celebrated Sunday Mass. Bishop Voderholzer then accompanied the pope emeritus to the Regensburg Cathedral, St. Peter’s, the immense Gothic cathedral in the heart of the city. There they prayed at the shrine of the patron saint of Regensburg, Saint Wolfgang. Finally, on Monday, June 22, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was wheeled to a plane at the Munich airport for the 90 minute flight back to Rome.
In his 2016 interview book with Peter Seewald, Last Testament, Benedict acknowledged the influence Georg had on his life “in many respects,” including his vocational path to the priesthood. He talked about the theological conversations they had as young men, and tells of how his brother read aloud a biography of St. Hildegard of Bingen to the family in the evenings. Until recently, the older Ratzinger often visited the retired pope in the Vatican, usually for the pontiff’s birthday, when they would enjoy a stein of German beer.
In a statement about Benedict’s trip home, the Diocese of Regensburg said, “It is perhaps the last time that the two brothers, Georg and Joseph Ratzinger, will see each other in this world.”