Generally speaking, our family made a big thing of Christmas. The preparations already began with the First Sunday of Advent. At that time, the Rorate Masses were celebrated at six in the morning, and the priests wore white vestments. Normally violet is the color of the vestments in Advent, but these were special votive Masses that were supposed to recall the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to the Mother of God and her words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38). That was the main theme of these “liturgies of the angels,” as they were also called, in which the appropriate passage from the Gospel of Luke was read. After we started school, we used to attend these Masses in the early morning, before classes began. Outside it was still night, everything was dark, and the people often shivered in the cold. Yet the warm glow of the sanctuary compensated for the early rising and the walk through snow and ice. The dark church was illuminated by candles and tapers, which were often brought by the faithful and provided not only light but also a little warmth. Afterward we went home first, ate breakfast, and only then set out for school. These Rorate Masses were wonderful signposts leading us to Christmas.
In our family, though, it was not only Christmas that was marked by the deep faith of our parents and the religious customs of our homeland. From our parents we learned what it means to have a firm grasp of faith in God. Every day we prayed together, and in fact before and after each meal (we ate our breakfast, dinner and supper together). The main prayer time was after the mid-day dinner, when the particular concerns of the family were expressed. Part of it was the prayer to Saint Dismas, the “good thief,” a former criminal who was crucified together with Jesus on Mount Calvary, repented on the cross, and begged the Lord for mercy. We prayed to him, the patron of repentant thieves, to protect Father from professional troubles.
Being a policeman, after all, was a rather dangerous profession, and we were often very anxious about Father. Especially when he worked the night shift and had to walk the beat. When a misdemeanor or a crime had occurred in the area he patrolled, it was his duty to investigate it. Father often worked at night, and then it could happen that he was held up, for whatever reasons, and came home later. Then, naturally, we children and Mother were anxious and prayed that nothing had happened to him. So, of course, our prayer life was always marked by concern about Father. When we were children, our parents also put us to bed and prayed our evening prayers with us. They used a very special form of blessing and repeated it three times. Unfortunately I do not remember the wording today. This was followed by another somewhat expansive blessing. Once I asked my father what it meant, but all he said to me was, “I do not know exactly, either. My father and mother used to pray this prayer at my bedside.”
I must admit we seldom went to Mass together, simply because our father had to work on Sunday or else sang in the church choir. When we were somewhat older, I and then later my brother served at the altar usually on Sundays and during the week, while Mother and our sister went to another Mass. Often on Sundays we attended Mass twice, once as servers and another time with our family, for instance, the early Mass at 6:00 and the main parish Mass at 8:00 or 8:30. Then, in the afternoon at 2:00, there were devotions, and on feast days a Vespers service.
This piety, which was lived and put into practice, defined our whole life, even though today I celebrate only one Mass and refrain from going to a second one. Nevertheless, it was imparted to us as children in the cradle, so to speak, and we remained faithful to it throughout our lives.
I am convinced that the lack of this traditional piety in many families is also a reason why there are too few priestly vocations today. Many people in our time practice a form of atheism rather than the Christian faith. In some respects, they may maintain a sort of vestigial religiosity; perhaps they still go to Mass on the major feast days, but this rudimentary faith long ago ceased to permeate their lives, and it has no bearing on their everyday routine. It starts with sitting down at table and beginning a meal without even thinking about prayer, and it ends with no longer coming to church regularly on Sundays. Thus, an almost pagan way of life has taken root. If there are no religious practices even in family life, then this has an effect on all the rest of human life. I often speak with brother priests, and in almost all cases it seems that they prayed regularly as a family and went to Mass together. This then shaped their whole lives and directed them toward God. Thus, their vocation fell on fertile soil.
To read more about Msr. Ratzinger and Pope Benedict XVI, read co-author Michael Hesemann's first-hand story.
Below, a slideshow of photos of the Pope and his family