Do you know where Pope Benedict’s favorite image of the Madonna is? The answer: in a Marian shrine, known as a place of miracles in the charming-beyond-words town of Altoetting where the Ratzinger family, including little Joseph, and his siblings Georg and Maria, would visit at least once a year.
In this place in 1489, two little boys who had been killed, one in a farm accident and another drowning, had been brought back to life after they were brought before the beautiful image of the Virgin Mary of Altoetting.
In fact, today, this place leaves an impression due to all the trinkets (ex-voto) left on the walls outside the shrine as signs of gratitude for miracles that occurred through Mary’s intercession. (Lighting candles is the gesture one does for obtaining miracles, while an ex-voto represents a sign of a miracle received.) Throughout and surrouding this shrine, there is not actually enough space on the walls to accommodate all the tributes. The wealthy gave items of silver to show their thanks, whereas the less well off and even very poor people, often drew little pictures to show their gratitude. One sees pictures of hospital beds, or even body parts to reflect recovery of the ill, as well as pictures of babies – even photographs from a few months ago — for babies who were delivered safely after complications or of parents who couldn’t have children, and then all of a sudden found themselves expecting. Moreover, there are painted images of people who were saved from torturous situations in times of war, struggle, or even recent tsunamis, whose survival was attributed to Mary’s intercession.
“I promise I’ll be good” was written in his Christmas list at the age of seven. (A promise Joseph Ratzinger certainly kept.) In exchange for his good behavior, the three things he requested very articulately: a vestment for when he would play Mass with his brother Georg, the Mass missal translated into German so he could understand the Latin, and a specific image of the Sacred Heart.
Wonderland of My Childhood
Tittmoning, a small town on the Salzach River, on the Austrian border, where the Ratzinger family lived from 1929-1932, (until about the time that Joseph entered kindergarten), is the place Benedict described as the ‘Wonderland of His Childhood.’ Before going to school, he would stop and pray in church. Here, he began to appreciate the Mass more and more, especially as he observed his older brother serve and his parents sing in the choir.
Also, in this town, where young Joseph began to fall in love with the liturgy, is a Marian Shrine, where he, with his mother and siblings, daily used to go to pray the rosary. We pilgrims braved the steep way up, but it was more than worth it. On the way back, we passed the rapids of a small river running downhill through a forest, giving shade in the summer.
We also visited Auschau am Inn, at the foot of the Alps, where the family had to relocate in 1932, due to Mr Ratzinger’s outspoken criticism of Nazism. Benedict’s family, especially his father, a policeman, always did everything they could to resist the Nazis and keep the family as distant from them as possible. Even this move to Auschau was done so that if soon there would be war, the family could have a home that supplied them with natural resources and food to live on.
In this home, Joseph was often found in solitude reading, his passion, and was a regular reader of “Der gerade Weg”, the most outspoken Catholic Anti-Nazi publication. After Hitler rose to power, its editor, Fritz Michael Gerlach, was arrested and died in the Dachau concentration camp as a martyr; his beatification process started in 2009. Mr Ratzinger always said no to any Nazi offers. The only thing he allowed was his wife to be part of a women’s group which prayed the rosary.