Precious Historical and Personal Insight into the Mind and Person of Josef Ratzinger by an Intimate Friend
Testimonies of Alfred Laepple who Wrote on “Conscience in Newman?
That new beginning that bloomed among the ruins
«He said: I am Joseph Ratzinger, and I have some questions for you. Out of that came the friendship of a life. We have never lost sight of each other. And if there was anything to say, we phoned». A conversation with Professor Alfred Läpple, prefect of the future successor to Peter at the seminary of Freising
Inteview with Alfred Läpple by Gianni Valente and Pierluca Azzaro
The young Joseph Ratzinger on 8 July 1951, the day of his first mass
Of Joseph Ratzinger’s first work only two
typed copies, bound in red Morocco exist. The gilt lettering on the cover makes
clear that it is a translation, a German version of the Quaestio disputata of Saint
Thomas on charity. One of the two copies is in the possession of the author.
The other is kept by Alfred Läpple in his little villa in Gilching, in the
suburbs of Munich. He recounts: «We translated it together, line after line. It
was in 1946. I remember that we looked up the original versions of all the
quotations: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine… Then, many years later, the original
manuscript was deteriorating, and then my secretary retyped the text and got
two copies bound. One I gave to Joseph on 14 March 1979, when he came to
Saltsburg for the feast of Saint Thomas, in the great hall of the University
where I taught, to give a magisterial lecture on “The consequences of faith in
the creation”». January is near its end, and the German newspapers are still
talking about the Deus Caritas est. Professor
Läpple, holding his precious bound typescript, offers his deduction: « When I
heard what was the topic of the first encyclical of Pope Benedict, it seemed
relevant to methat it recalled his opus primum written
when he had shortly entered the seminary in 1946: it means that at the origin,
in each of his new beginnings, there is always charity…».
There is snow, here in Gilching and over a lot of Bavaria. It was in the hills just behind that the young Ratzinger did his military service in an anti-aircraft battery, in 1943 during the war. The young-hearted elderly professor – a prestigious university career as teacher of pedagogy, a hundred and fifty books on spirituality, theology, exegesis, Church history and art history published throughout the world – went out this morning, in jacket and shirt, to clear his garden path with a shovel. Here they tell that at ninety-one he still nonchalantly drives his new Mercedes. But today it’s the thread of memories that drives him along the impassioned roads of his life. In his sun-filled living room he discloses to us the secret of a friendship that has lasted sixty years. That is also the story of the beginnings of a boy who was to become the successor to Peter.
When did you meet Joseph Ratzinger?
ALFRED LÄPPLE: It was the 4th or 5th of January of 1946. I was just back from an American prison camp. When, more than seven years earlier, in 1939, I was drafted into the Luftwaffe, I was only a year short of becoming a priest. So, as soon as I returned, I called the Freising seminary to learn what to do. I had spoken with the new rector Michael Höck, a priest who had survived five years internment in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau camps where he had ended up for having written articles against Hitler in the diocesan newspaper. I already knew him, because he had been my prefect of studies at the junior seminary.
What did rector Höck say?
LÄPPLE: He said: dear Alfred, I was expecting you, I have a fine job for you. You’re to be prefect of studies for the new men, those who have never been in seminary. I went, and he led me into the largest room (roter Saal) in the seminary, that was usually opened only for solemn celebrations. They had arranged desks and chairs, and there were sixty beginners. Rector Höck told them: dear lads, here’s the best man I’ve found for you, you’ll be well off with him. Among those sixty boys there were also the two Ratzinger brothers. Some days later, during a break, this young man approached me, whom I still didn’t know. He said: I am Joseph Ratzinger, and I have some questions for you. From those questions our first work together arose. And it was the beginning of many conversations, of many walks, of many impassioned discussions and of many works done together. A life-long friendship began then. We have never lost sight of each other. And if there was anything to say, we phoned and wrote a lot.
You, as a prefect of the seminarians, had an unusual curriculum: the war, prison camp … How had it gone?
LÄPPLE: From 1939 to 1945 I was in the Luftwaffe, I then ended up as an Americans prisoner in Germany, in the Westphalia region, near Hamm. From there they deported me to France and I was almost going to be shipped to America, but then in April and May 1945 the war ended and they moved us to a prison camp near Le Havre. There were almost half a million of us, split in groups of a thousand. I would go round the camp with the American military chaplain, for whom I acted as interpreter. I noticed that the place was full of priests, seminarians, Protestant pastors, theology students. I even knew some of them. I was able to get them together in a separate camp. There were more than three hundred, among Catholics and Protestants. We also organized courses in theology in the camp. Then those lessons in the camp were even published. I wrote on the frontispiece a saying of Kierkegaard’s: «Christianity is not a doctrine, but the communication of a life». I hadn’t then met Ratzinger, but it was within that shared feeling that we were to meet. Those were the things that we would speak of with fervor.
Above, the Frauenkirche in Munich in 1944, wrecked by Allied bombing
When you left for the war, you weren’t far from becoming a priest. Where
had you studied?
LÄPPLE: I was born 1915. After three years of theology and philosophy at the Freising upper school I started on university studies at the Theological Faculty of Munich. Under the guidance of my professor Theodor Steinbüchel I’d begun to work on a dissertation in theology on the theme of the individual conscience in the Church according to Newman. But in February 1939 the Theology Faculty of Munich was closed by the Nazis, because Cardinal Faulhaber had refused his consent to a Hitlerian professor, Dr. Hans Barion, who has been a member of the Nazionalsocialist Party (Nsdap) since 1933. And then the war started…
A young man who is about to become a priest, passionate about Newman and personalism… with what feelings did you go off to war?
LÄPPLE: With a divided heart. It’s easy today to say that we could have said no. But then conscientious objection equalled the death penalty. I had been sent to an officers school in Baden near Vienna, but I refused to become an officer. I was thinking: if Hitler wins, I won’t ever become a priest. I’ll finish up as a soldier maybe in Norway, or in North Africa. If I want to become a priest, then Germany must lose. That was my torment. That the tragedy that was in us. And that many already then, immediately after the war, had the courage to speak of.
The Georgianum institute that housed the students of the Theology Faculty of Munich
In what way?
LÄPPLE: I’d come back from the prison camp only a few days and in Munich listened to a lecture by the writer Ernst Wiechert. I haven’t forgotten his words: «Consider this, my friends, and allow it to be shouted to those who have vanquished the people… we know that thousands turned their back on the demons, and that gradually they became hundreds of thousands and millions… Of them I know that they didn’t have the courage to open their mouths, because opening them meant death. They were obedient, they were silent, but each step of their life was like treading on thorns. And at night, when nobody saw them, they raised the hands to God and prayed for the victory of the enemy. Does the world know what such a prayer means? Does the world know what a people must have suffered to pray in this way?».
Dachau is closeby. Did you know what was happening there?
LÄPPLE: I had friends who had worked in Dachau, and I knew something. But each of them told me: Alfred, I can’t speak. If I say anything I’ll go back there, and I won’t come out again.
And just here, behind your house, there are also the hills where the young Ratzinger did his military service in an anti-aircraft battery in Gilching…
LÄPPLE: He himself tells of that period in his autobiography. He, too, then, ended up in an American prison camp, from which he was let out on 19 June 1945. The date was imprinted on me because it’s the date of my birthday. And that day I reached thirty.
Did the horror you came out of affect the atmosphere of the newly opened seminary?
LÄPPLE: Every day in the newspapers there were reports of the Nuremberg trials, or photos of mountains of dead bodies in the concentration camps. We asked ourselves how all that had been possible. But all those things caused this reaction in us: now we must start again from zero. The first thing was that we were glad the war was over, we couldn’t stand things to do with the war any more. We wanted to become priests. We were happy we could finally begin to study.
Without looking back?
LÄPPLE: It was like starting again from zero. It was over, enough, we needed to stop talking about those things. We knew that later, in the confessional, that both the victims and the executioners would come to us. They would tell us: I was in the concentration camp. Or: I was a partisan. Or again: I was in the war and killed the partisans.
Forgive me if I insist. That was the new beginning of a seminary. You were preparing to witness to the Christian faith among the very people whose lives had been overwhelmed by Nazism and the war. Did no shared question come to the surface among you as to what had happened?
LÄPPLE: I repeat: in the face of what had happened we were in shock. That Christians had made the concentration camps… there it was nothing to discuss, no answer of ours could have explained. Hitler never left the Church… But faced with that there was no point in dwelling on those things among us. It was God who had saved us, it was He who had brought us out of the abyss and only He with his forgiveness could heal hearts. It was as if the end of the war has given us life a second time. There was only to thank God with our lives, by being good priests. From that moment we would serve our faithful not for some hours, but forever.
In that seminary, as Ratzinger says, there were also seminarians in their thirties and forties, who had had to suspend their studies to go off to war and had lived its horror…
LÄPPLE: Among them there were also those who in the war had had roles of command. After I became a priest they all came to confide in me, because I was the one who had been in the war. They said: I can’t go to the rector, he was in a concentration camp, he didn’t go to the war, he can’t understand… Among them there was an unspoken agreement: nobody knew where the next man had been and what he had done there.
What did they tell you?
Left, Professor Läpple showing the translation of the Quaestio disputata of Saint Thomas on charity, made by Joseph Ratzinger in 1946
LÄPPLE: They asked me: I did this, I did that. In
all conscience, can I make a good priest? I remember one who had been a major
and had killed people. He said: I can’t become a priest, every time I would
begin the mass saying «Dominus vobiscum» someone could get up and yell: you’re
a murderer. Another, while in the retreat from Russia, had shot a friend
wounded and with an amputated leg who begged him to kill him and put an end to
his suffering. He asked me: Father, I killed him. But was that really murder?
And what did you answer?
LÄPPLE: I tried to comfort them. I said: had I been in your place, I’d have done worse.
At the start you mentioned that Joseph Ratzinger also, at your first meeting, came to ask you something. What did he ask?
LÄPPLE: He asked me: how did you manage to keep the faith during all the time of the war?
And what did you answer?
LÄPPLE: I told him that it had been my mother’s prayers, and later he wanted to meet her. And that I knew that Christ loved me, and if I was spared, then it would be Christ whowould consume my life.
How was life organized in the Freising seminary?
LÄPPLE: Half the seminary was still used as a hospital, and lodged allied casualties. But we sought immediately to organize the life of a normal seminary. The lads slept in big dormitories in groups of forty, each had his bed surrounded by a kind of white curtain, to give some privacy. The morning call was at 5.30, then there was mass, breakfast, lectures. In the respect of the rules introduced during the secularization, the courses on the pastoral subjects were held in the seminary. The more scientific ones were given in the higher School of philosophy and theology, that was a State institute housed in the building next to the seminary. After lunch there was free time, we went for walks, then study. The evening, after supper, there was meditation or even a lecture to listen to. And then we went happily off to bed. There was no heating, and we got quickly under the blankets, because then the dormitories were freezing.…
Did the Ratzinger brothers stand out in any way?
LÄPPLE: They were always in the front row at lectures. The other students, to tell them apart, called them Orgel-Ratz and Bücher-Ratz, the Ratzinger of the organ and the Ratzinger of books. Georg, Joseph’s brother, was already then a musician. As is known, until recently he conducted the Regensburger Domspatzen, the “sparrows of the dome”, the famous boys’ choir of Regensburg cathedral.
It was like starting again from zero. It was over, enough, we needed to stop talking about those things. We knew that later, in the confessional, that both the victims and the executioners would come to us
What most struck you about Joseph?
LÄPPLE: He was like a dry cloth soaking up water almost greedily. When in his studies he came across something new, that could correct or open new paths in terms of what he already knew, he was full of enthusiasm, he couldn’t wait to tell others. He and I spent hours and hours discussing while going for a walk. First one topic, then another… I remember as if it were yesterday the time we spoke about the phrase in which Friedrich Nietzsche says that Christians must have the faces of the redeemed, if one is going to be able to believe in their Redeemer. He came to the mass at which I was ordained priest by Cardinal Faulhaber, on 29 June 1947 in Freising. And on that day also he asked me a lot of questions.
What did he want to know?
LÄPPLE: He asked me: what happens at the moment of the consecration, during mass? Who is at work in the mystery? Is it me that does it? Is there a kind of magical force? Those were his questions that day, but above all the day of my first mass in Partenkirchen, on 6 July 1947. On that occasion we talked about it for hours, strolling by the Olympic track laid out for the 1936 games. I quoted him a passage from Saint John Chrysostom (I’d read it during the spiritual exercises preparing me for ordination) which says that the priest lends Christ his being, his hands, his words, but it is Christ Himself who performs the miracle of changing the bread and the wine into flesh and blood. In 1997, on my golden anniversary as a priest in Munich-Pasing, Ratzinger sent me this letter in which he recalled how important that day had been for him.
Could you read it to us?
LÄPPLE: «On that festive day», he writes remembering that walk, «I got a much deeper experience than before of what it means to be able to be a priest of Jesus Christ in his Church. You yourself told me like how moved you were that you could say the very words of Jesus for the transformation of the bread and the wine, lending him your voice, your word, your own being.» At my first mass, which I celebrated in Partenkirchen, my birthplace, I asked Ratzinger to accompany me as master of ceremonies.
You were then already a student of Newman. Was it you who transmitted to Ratzinger an interest in the English cardinal-theologian …
LÄPPLE: Newman was not a topic like any other, he was our passion. The title of my thesis was: “Conscience in Newman”. I took my doctorate examination in July 1951, one week after Ratzinger’s ordination as priest. He helped me, it was he who translated into his classical Latin the theses that were to be defended in public debate at the University of Munich, for getting a doctorate. Between us there was this great freedom in looking at and judging things, the freedom of the sons of God of which Saint Paul speaks. Hence Newman’s fascination for us. A man who had lived as a free man in the milieu of Anglicanism, how does a man like that fit in with the Catholic doctrine of the primacy in the Church? Is it ever conceivable that he accept that doctrine as a limit to his freedom? I was the one who got Ratzinger to read the phrase from Newman that he has since often quoted…
Which is that?
LÄPPLE: The famous phrase in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: «Certainly if I were to bring religion into a postprandial toast – something that is not very proper to do – then I would toast the Pope. But first conscience and then the Pope.»
In his seminary studies did his bugbears emerge also in the young Ratzinger?
Above, the Corpus Christi precession headed by Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber through Munich destroyed by the bombs, 31 May 1945. Down, the seventeen year old Joseph Ratzinger in the uniform of a Luftwaffe auxiliary, during his service with an anti-aircraft battery in Gilching
LÄPPLE: The philosopher at Freising was Arnold
Wilmsen, a neo-scholastic in tendency. Ratzinger has never spoken to me very
much about him, perhaps because didn’t want to be discourteous. But Wilmsen’s
lectures slipped off like water off a raincoat. He said to me: I regret the
time I’m wasting, it would be much more useful to go for a stroll with you…
What was wrong with neo-scholasticism?
LÄPPLE: He also mentions it in his book. Wilmsen, who had become attached to the neo-Thomism he had studied in the Roman theology faculties, seemed to him someone who no longer set himself questions, but is concerned only to defend from all doubts the truths that he thinks he possesses.
And why did that create difficulties for Ratzinger?
LÄPPLE: It’s not so much a matter of conflicting philosophical doctrines as of what man is. Man is always asking questions, and when he thinks he’s answered one question, a bigger one is already presenting itself. The impulse to consider the truth as a possession to be defended has always unsettled him. He didn’t feel at ease with neo-scholastic definitions that seemed to him like ramparts, whereby what is inside the definition is the truth, and what is outside is all mistaken. But if God is everywhere – he would say – I certainly can’t be the one to put up barriers and say: God is here only. And if Christ himself said he was the way, the truth and the life, then the truth is a You that loves you from beforehand. According to him, God is not recognized because He is a summum bonum that is able to be grasped and demonstrated with exact formulas, but because He is a You that comes forward and gets Himself recognized. The intelligence can try to build concepts that define true contents. But this, according to Ratzinger, is a theology that claims of dissect the mystery, not a theology that kneels. And such theology already didn’t interest him then. In the dialect of Bavaria we would say: it wasn’t his beer.
And in those years what was the “beer” he preferred?
LÄPPLE: Books with abstract titles of “The essence of Christianity” kind don’t interest Ratzinger. He’s not interested in defining God by abstract concepts. An abstraction – he once told me – didn’t need a Mother. God doesn’t come to us as an abstract definition, as a summum bonum, but as a You that loves you beforehand, and you can thank Him. Only to a You can you say yes. He came across this approach also in Martin Buber, for example, the Jewish personalist philosopher who said that the best discourse on God is to give Him thanks. But he liked Newman also for that reason, who chose as his motto as bishop: “Cor ad cor loquitur”.
After his philosophical studies, in September 1947 Ratzinger embarked on the courses at the Theology Faculty of Munich. What were you doing then?
LÄPPLE: After becoming a priest I worked for a year as chaplain and then, in 1948, I returned to the Freising seminary as teacher of pastoral and sacramental theology. But I still had to finish my theological studies and complete my doctoral thesis on Newman. So I found myself frequenting various university courses in Munich along with Ratzinger. The University had been destroyed by the bombing and the Theology Faculty had found an interim arrangement at Fürstenried, the former hunting lodge of the Bavarian monarchs, south of Munich. I remember that the lessons were initially held in a greenhouse, torrid in summer and cold in the winter.
The Theology Faculty of Munich had a well respected tradition, in which the approach leant towards Christianity as historical fact…
LÄPPLE: Yes, but after the shut-down imposed by the Nazis in February of 1939 and after the war even there everything began again from the beginning. There was no longer an organic school of theology. Few of the old professors remained, and the new ones came from different theological faculties and experiences. Internally the teaching staff was very variegated. And in that atmosphere the students also seized their freedom…
What does that mean?
LÄPPLE: Maybe they enrolled in the courses, but then if the professor’s lectures weren’t interesting they deserted: one student took notes and then passed them on to the others. In the library, then, they were all eager to read the books that expressed the new theological tendencies.
Who were the outstanding people on the Faculty?
LÄPPLE: According to me the more important professors were three: Gottlieb Söhngen, Michael Schmaus and Friedrich Wilhelm Maier.
What do you remember about Söhngen, Ratzinger’s “teacher”?
LÄPPLE: He taught Fundamental Theology, and his way of lecturing was very impressive. You could see that he lived and suffered what he was explaining. He came with a slip of paper, with three or four words written on it and then a series of questions. He spoke impromptu, and if some startling idea came to him during the lecture he would get up from the desk and approach the students, to talk to them almost head to head. He came out of philosophy, but then theology had become his destiny, as Ratzinger said in the homily for his funeral. His wasn’t a theology of concepts, but an existential theology, a theology for the faith.
Alfred Läpple at the time when he was teacher of Pastoral Theology and the Sacraments at Freising seminary
It’s known there was bad blood between him and Schmaus.
LÄPPLE: Söhngen was very open to the new trends coming from France. And then he was from Cologne, sunny, cheerful, extrovert, fascinating. Whereas Schmaus was the classical detached professor, all taken over and shut in by his role. He came out of the neo-scholasticism, also though he gave new life to the exposition of Catholic dogmatics by delving into the Fathers and Holy Writ with bottomless erudition. Söhngen claimed that Schmaus’s books were only a rich series of quotations taken from the sources on the various issues of theology, without a vision that took account also of developments in modern philosophy and the questions they posed. Schmaus wrote monumental works of dogmatic theology.
What were the theological factors in their differences?
LÄPPLE: According to Schmaus the faith of the Church was to be communicated through definitive, unchanging, concepts that set out perennial truths. For Söhngen the faith was mystery, and was communicated through a history. At that time there was much talk of the history of salvation. There was a dynamic factor that warranted an opening and a consideration of new questions also.
What did Ratzinger learn from Söhngen?
LÄPPLE: Söhngen usually never gave damning judgments on any author. He never refused a priori any contribution, from wherever it came. His method was to pick up and improve the good that could be found in any author and in every theological perspective, to weave the new things into the Tradition and then go ahead, indicating the further development that could follow. But in Söhngen Ratzinger also saw a willingness to rediscover Tradition understood as the theology of the Fathers. And a willingness to do theology by going back to the great sources: from Plato to Newman, via Thomas, Bonaventure, Luther. And obviously Saint Augustine…
Who became Ratzinger’s favorite.
LÄPPLE: Ratzinger’s passion for Augustine had already begun in the seminary. It was an existential passion. I remember a lecture in which Söhngen explained that before Augustine everybody – Plato, Xenophon, Julius Caesar – had always spoken in the third person. The saintly bishop of Hippo had been the first to say “I”. That was the breakthrough.
What was the mode of relationship between teacher and student?
LÄPPLE: Söhngen wasn’t in the habit of “shaping” his own students, of making them clones of himself. Ratzinger was free in relations with his teacher. You can tell it even in his doctoral thesis…
In what way?
LÄPPLE: The starting point was an attempt to understand what the best definition of the Church might be. On 29 June 1943 Pius XII had published the encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, which defined the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. Söhngen had noticed that the definition was not to be found in the Bible. So he suggested to Ratzinger to check whether Saint Augustine applied other definitions to the Church.
What was wrong with the definition of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ?
LÄPPLE: One of the questions, for example, was: if man, entering the Church, comes as already englobed in the Mystical Body of Christ, how can he continue to sin? And what happens to freewill? Ratzinger’s discoveries surprized and thrilled his teacher…
What did the student find?
LÄPPLE: Ratzinger found much more than his teacher had suggested he look for. He documented with an inconceivable quantity of quotations what Saint Augustine meant when he defined the Church as the People of God. The same expression that was to be reproposed only much time later by Vatican Council II and by Paul VI. But Ratzinger didn’t set the two definitions of Church one against the other, indeed he reconciled them.
And how Söhngen take that?
LÄPPLE: He said: now my student knows more than me who am the teacher! Söhngen had great esteem for the man he considered his best student. He once said that he felt like Saint Albert Magnus, when in the Middle Ages he declared that his student would make more noise than him. And the student was Saint Thomas! He was glad that somebody was capable of developing in an original and not pre-planned manner his suggestions.
Ratzinger reveals in his autobiography that you also influenced his doctoral thesis on Augustine in decisive fashion, because it was you who in 1949 gave him the book Catholicism by the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac…
LÄPPLE: I gave it to him thinking it would make a nice surprise. And in fact he writes in his autobiography that it became a reference book for him, and offered him a new relationship with the thinking of the Fathers, but also a new standpoint on theology. In effect, more than a third of the book was made up of quotations from the Fathers.
And yet, precisely in those years, de Lubac, Daniélou and the other Jesuits in Lyon were banned from teaching, and their books put on the Index. How did you take that?
LÄPPLE: I remember when news of the measures against of them arrived. Söhngen didn’t want to incite anybody, and made no mention in his lecture. But I recall that that day, after the lecture, Ratzinger and myself went with him to his study, where there was a grand piano, because Söhngen was also musician and played it like a concert performer. That time in front of us, without saying a word, he threw his books angrily on the desk. Then he went to the piano and poured out all his anger on the keyboard.
In his autobiography Ratzinger writes that already then exegesis was to the center of his interests, and the starting point of his work in theology…
LÄPPLE: He has always quoted Holy Writ. Today also one can see that in his homilies and in the finest catechesis the starting point is often a passage from Scripture commented with some quotation from the Fathers referring to it. Because for him there is no good exegesis of a passage of the Bible if not starting from the interpretation given it by the Church through the Fathers. This for him is the Traditio vivens, the living transmission. It was the Church that set the Canon, that has recognized which are the canonical books. He is not one of those exegetes of the sola Scriptura. For him one has to start from the phrase Christus praedicat Christum. The best exegete of Christ is Christ Himself, in the Church in which He operates. And this entails the greatest freedom also, because as Saint Augustine says: « In Ecclesia non valet: hoc ego dico, hoc tu dicis, hoc ille dicit, sed haec dicit Dominus ».
Maier, the professor of exegesis of the New Testament, also went through troubled experiences.
LÄPPLE: When he was a young scholar, even before the First World War, he had supported with enthusiasm the exegetical line according to which Mark’s was the first Gospel to be written, providing the source for the other synoptic Gospels. A thesis now commonly accepted, but then all this was branded as modernism. The pages with the arguments set out by Maier were ripped out of the miscellaneous volume in which they had been published. He was banned from teaching. But after the Second World War things changed, and it was great good luck to have Maier as professor at Munich.
I remember as if it were yesterday the time we spoke about the phrase in which Friedrich Nietzsche says that Christians must have the faces of the redeemed, if one is going to be able to believe in their Redeemer
Ratzinger writes that Maier had not assimilated «the shift that Rudolph
Bultmann and Karl Barth had brought into exegesis» …
LÄPPLE: Professor Maier still kept within the range of historico-critical exegesis. But his direct approach, his posing the questions without self-censorship created a new immediacy with the biblical text.
In his book Ratzinger also tells of the relationship with the so-called liturgical movement. To what is he referring?
LÄPPLE: In those years the liturgical movement stressed the centrality of the liturgy for Christian life, and aimed to rediscover the essential elements of the liturgy, freeing them from the additions that had deposited over the centuries. Josef Pascher, the professor of Pastoral Theology, was also the director of the Georgianum, the college where the students resided, and he was an enthusiastic supporter of the liturgical movement. He had been influenced by the French currents and in the debate that then began between those who stressed in the mass the theory of the sacrifice and those instead who stressed that of the supper, Pascher was part of the latter group. Romano Guardini had, instead, already expressed himself against the reduction of the mass to ritual repetition of the Last Supper…
And Ratzinger, on that point, what position did he take?
LÄPPLE: For him the aspect of sacrifice could not be set aside. But that didn’t prevent the mass from also ritually repeating the Last Supper, the meal with which the disciples had celebrated the Jewish Easter. This ability of his to integrate the two positions he again demonstrated in a meditation on the matter that he gave as Pope during the last Synod of the Bishops. And in any case, Ratzinger respected Pascher and was marked by his method that put the daily celebration of holy mass at the center of the education of the students. He was disappointed when he saw some professor, with all his precise definitions lavished during lectures, who then almost didn’t know how to say mass, and moved around the altar like a foreigner. Once, while one of them was celebrating, he said to me: look at him, he doesn’t know what’s happening…
How was the proclamation of the dogma on the Assumption of Mary in 1950 taken by the Theology Faculty of Munich?
LÄPPLE: In general the reception was critical. There were no objections on the content of the dogma, but on the reasonableness of going as far as dogmatization. Söhngen stressed that in the Christian sources of the early centuries there was no trace of the doctrine of the bodily Assumption of the Mother of Jesus. Schmaus was also summoned by Rome and by the archbishop because of a critical article he published in the diocesan newspaper (Münchner Katholische Kirchenzeitung).
LÄPPLE: He also thought that dogmatization was not necessary. In our more traditional practices of devotion we already believed and celebrated the bodily Assumption of Maria, for example in the prayer of the Rosary. Lex orandi, lex credendi. But we thought that in that moment the definition of a new dogma would create problems in the ecumenic dialogue that was blooming precisely in Germany.
In 1951, after his ordination, Ratzinger begins his ministry like chaplain. What do you remember of that period?
LÄPPLE: He had been appointed to the parish of the Most Precious Blood in Munich, and he stayed there a year. Before him two martyrs executed by the Nazis had lived and worked there, the chaplain Hermann Joseph Wehrle, killed on 14 September 1944, and the Jesuit Alfred Delp, killed on 2 February 1945. In that first year of his priesthood he had to hold sixteen hours of religion a week, a great many for one just beginning. He supervised the Catholic youth groups also. And he found himself having to make a decision: was he to continue his theology studies, undertake an academic career, or opt for the pastoral ministry in some parish? I, then, did something that was to help solve the dilemma…
What did you do?
LÄPPLE: In 1952, while I was about to leave my post teaching the Pastoral Theology of the Sacraments at the Freising seminary, I decided to go to Bishop Faulhaber to tell him that my most suitable successor in the post would be Joseph Ratzinger. Who in fact, on 1 October, took over my post. So began his academic career. I’ve never told him that I went to the bishop to suggest his name. But I like to think that perhaps that intervention of mine in favor of his appointment may have helped him on the path.
So in 1952 Ratzinger came back to live in Freising. In July 1953 he passed the final examinations for his doctorate, becoming doctor in Theology. Meanwhile, always under Söhngen’s guidance, he chose the theme for the examination that needs to be passed in Germany to be admitted to lecturing. The choice fell on Saint Bonaventure… What was the specific theme assigned?
Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich from 1917 to 1952, in a photo of 1949
LÄPPLE: Ratzinger had to analyze Saint
Bonaventure’s perspective on Revelation. In those years the debate on the
concept of Revelation was very alive. A new view was coming in, according to
which Revelation was first and foremost the historical action of God, in the
progress of the history of salvation, and could not be identified with the
communication of some truths to reason through concepts, as claimed in the
What did Ratzinger discover this time?
LÄPPLE: He ascertained that in Bonaventure’s medieval perception of “Revelation” it was above all an act, it always indicated the action whereby God shows himself in a definite historic moment. Revelation was reflected in Holy Writ, but it was always greater than it, it preceded it and was not identified with it, just as a happening precedes and is not identified with the account given of it. Thus the formula of sola Scriptura with which in modern times Revelation was identified in fact with the objective and fixed set of the contents of Holy Writ was foreign to Bonaventure’s thinking. Additionally, in his analysis, Ratzinger pointed out that in this perspective there is Revelation only if the act wherewith the Mystery reveals itself is perceived by someone. If God had spoken only in a divine language, not perceptible to any man, there would have been no Revelation.
In his autobiography Ratzinger relates that things became complicated… What went wrong?
LÄPPLE: In the autumn of 1955 Ratzinger handed in his work on Bonaventure. Söhngen was immediately enthusiastic. But the co-supervisor was Schmaus, because he was the medievalist in the Theology Faculty. Schmaus told Söhngen: listen, this is a modernist work, I can’t pass it. Söhngen warned Ratzinger: look, we won’t pass with this thesis, because Schmaus says that it’s a modernist work. I believe that Schmaus took some passages as a dangerous subjectivism that put the objectivity of Revelation in doubt.
The future pope’s thesis for a lecturing qualification was not, however, rejected for suspected modernism…
LÄPPLE: No. The Faculty Council sent it back to the candidate to rewrite, taking into account the corrections and criticisms that Schmaus had set out on his copy.
But the amount of changes required was such that it would have taken years of work. And so Ratzinger adopted a ruse…
LÄPPLE: There was a second section in Ratzinger’s thesis devoted to Bonaventure’s theology of history, comparing it to that of Gioacchino da Fiore, and Schmaus had not expressed any critical judgement on that section. The section had its own autonomy and could even be read as a finished text in itself. So Söhngen also suggested to Ratzinger: cut the first part, which is what is causing problems, and re-present the second on its own…
The thesis for qualification was accepted. And on 21 February 1957, the day of the public lecture of qualification at the University of Munich, there was a large audience in the great hall of the Faculty … how do you remember it?
LÄPPLE: Ratzinger set out his exposition. Then Schmaus began asking more or less if according to Ratzinger the truth was something static and changeless or something historico-dynamic. But Ratzinger didn’t answer. Söhngen took over, and the two professors began to clash in what seemed a great medieval disputatio. The audience applauded Söhngen and seemed pleased that Schmaus, the haughty professor, was getting a drubbing. Ratzinger didn’t say a word. At the end the rector arrived and said: enough, time’s run out. Then supervisor and co-supervisor stood up and said hastily: fine, he’s qualified…
Alfred Läpple celebrating his first mass in Partenkirchen. The twenty year old Joseph Ratzinger acting as his master of ceremonies
What happened then? Ratzinger hints at some problems with his detractors…
LÄPPLE: Ratzinger took on the teaching of Dogmatic Theology at the School of Advanced Studies close to the Freising seminary; the same place he had studied. Meanwhile, there was rumor that Ratzinger would go to teach in an institute of pedagogy that had been recently opened in Pasing, on the outskirts of Munich.
Ratzinger speaks of problems with the episcopal curia. To what is he referring?
LÄPPLE: Let’s remember that during the whole period of the war there had been no priestly ordinations. There was a great deal of work to do in the dioceses and parishes. One heard it said: first let’s think of pastoral work, then we’ll think about theology and scholarship. The bishops weren’t pleased when anybody asked to dedicate themselves to doing scholarly theology. But in Germany there is a law whereby if a professor is invited by a state university to teach theology, his bishop cannot veto the invitation.
And Ratzinger soon took advantage of it…
LÄPPLE: In the summer of 1958 Joseph was invited by the University of Bonn to take the Chair of Fundamental Theology. Shortly afterwards Cardinal Wendel, who was then archbishop of Munich, summoned him and said: congratulations, I’ve heard that you’re going to the pedagogy institute in Pasing… and Ratzinger answered: «Thank you very much, my Lord Archbishop, but I, here it is, I’ve been invited to Bonn…». And pulled out the letter of invitation…
To conclude, Professor, is there an episode in your long friendship that is particularly dear to you?
LÄPPLE: The day of the priestly ordination of Joseph and his brother Georg, 29 June 1951 in Freising Cathedral. I too, after Cardinal Faulhaber, like all the other priests present, lined up to lay my hands on his head. At that moment he raised his head and said: thank you. After the mass, he, his parents and his sister Maria came up to my room, and I said: dear Joseph, now give you me your blessing. He hugged me with indescribable delight. He doesn’t know how to pretend. And the thing that hurts him most is when somebody is insincere, when they go in for playacting. That hurts him. That’s why he doesn’t like it when even the liturgy is reduced to theater. Because – he says – that is no way of treating Jesus Christ.