“And, to tell the truth, if I try to imagine a little how paradise will be, I think always of the time of my youth, of my childhood. In this context of confidence, of joy and love we were happy, and I think that paradise must be something like how it was in my youth. In this sense I hope to go ‘home,’ going to the other side of the world.”

Pope Benedict XVI

“I hope to go home.” I can’t think of more beautiful words spoken about death than these spoken by Pope Benedict some ten years before his own. They are part of an astounding response the then Pope gave to a little girl who asked about his childhood. His response gives a unique perspective into the life of a man whose only earthly home was that of his family of origin.

The description of the simple yet profoundly rich life in the Ratzinger household (see full text below) can sound like a fairy tale. Reading, hiking, singing, playing, praying. It is so ordinary and yet so extraordinary; like true human life. To hear how it affected a little boy—“we grew up in the certainty that it was good to be a human being”—can make us parents gulp. How might we do such a thing? How can we make such a home?

The life in the Ratzinger home, just as the life of Joseph Ratzinger himself, and the life of any other great man, can point us—if we have eyes to see through the accidentals—to the few things that really matter. Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Benedict’s sketch goes far in helping us discern what happy families have in common.

His account paints a picture of ‘unforgettable moments’:
“Father read to us…”
“Dad played the zither and sang…”
“And at home the big lunch together…”
“walking in the forests…”
“Sunday was always the important time…”
“and when the Kyrie began it was as if heaven had opened up…”

Yet these moments are unforgettable especially because of what animates them. In this remarkably accessible response to a little girl, Benedict—ever the scribe seeking wisdom—gives the key that explains and ties together the whole astounding account:

In a word, we were one heart and one soul, with many shared experiences, even in very hard times, because it was wartime – first there was the dictatorship, then poverty. But this love that we had for each other, this joy even in simple things was strong and so we were able to overcome and endure even these things. I think that it was very important that even little things gave us joy because the other person’s heart expressed itself in this way.

It begins in the heart of the parents: hearts fully invested in the home, and in the simple, ordinary ‘shared experiences’ of daily life. Such hearts invested in the little things, precisely because they are committed to the biggest things, take on an incomparable power: a power to form the hearts of the children, and others, day by day.

“In this context of confidence, of joy and love we were happy…”

Of course they were. This is no secret trick. It isn’t rocket science, and it isn’t magic. Though the fruits are magical in the extreme.

No home life—be it ever so good or bad—is the sole determining factor of the course of life. But here we have a stunning account of one great and wise man, who saw very clearly what a good home life can and should do. Indeed, what it had done for him.

Rather than an occasion for discouragement, may Benedict’s account be a hopeful reminder of what home life can be and do. With such images in our mind, each of us can work in our own way to make more such homes. Perhaps we did not or do not have such a home. Perhaps we have been trying and are falling short. The truth is that all homes fall short. Reflecting on his own life and already looking toward the next, Benedict alluded to the almost unthinkably lofty goal of home life: to give a sense and foretaste of heaven.

May our recognition of this great truth prompt us to reinvest our hearts in our homes, whatever our state in life.

In the end, regardless of how we men succeed or not in patterning our homes after it, there is a place of confidence, joy, and love, that really and truly is a home, a home for human hearts. Good Benedict, may you find Paradise to be indeed “something like it was in [your] youth.” And may we strive to give to others the gift your parents gave to you, and you have shared with us.

~ ~ ~

Full text from World Meeting of Families, Milan, June 2012;     Photo image: young Joseph Ratzinger (front right) with his brother and sister.

Cat Tien (a little girl from Vietnam): “Hello Papa. I am Cat Tien, I come from Vietnam. I am seven years old, and I would like to present to you my family…. I would really like to know something about your family and when you were little like me.”

Pope Benedict: “Thank you, dear, and your parents. I thank you from my heart. Well, you asked about what my memories of my family are like: there would be a lot! I wanted to say only a few things. Sunday was always the important time for our family, but Sunday already began Saturday evening. Father read the readings to us from a book that was very popular in Germany at that time. The book also included an explanation of the readings. That is how Sunday began: we were already entering into the liturgy, in a joyful atmosphere. The next day we went to Mass. My home is very close to Salzburg, so we had a lot of music – Mozart, Schubert, Haydn – and when the Kyrie began it was as if heaven had opened up. And at home the big lunch together was naturally important.  And we also sang a lot: my brother is a great musician, he composed music for all of us already as a young man, and the whole family sang. Dad played the zither and sang; they are unforgettable moments. Then, of course, we took trips together, walking; we were near a forest and so walking in the forests was very nice: adventures, games, etc. In a word, we were one heart and one soul, with many shared experiences, even in very hard times, because it was wartime – first there was the dictatorship, then poverty. But this love that we had for each other, this joy even in simple things was strong and so we were able to overcome and endure even these things. I think that it was very important that even little things gave us joy because the other person’s heart expressed itself in this way. And in this way we grew up in the certainty that it was good to be a human being, because we saw that God’s goodness was reflected in our parents and in us children. And, to tell the truth, if I try to imagine a little how paradise will be, I think always of the time of my youth, of my childhood. In this context of confidence, of joy and love we were happy and I think that paradise must be something like how it was in my youth. In this sense I hope to go ‘home,’ going to the other side of the world.”

This week’s video: Dividing Duties in the Household

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