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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“It is very curious, rather barbarous, much too ornate, immeasurably less dignified than ours now, anything in the world rather than archaic or primitive.”
— Fr. Fortescue describing the “Sarum Use” in 1912

Ratzinger’s 1987 Letter to a Former Catechism Student
published 3 April 2018 by Fr. David Friel

89622 RATZINGER ORMER students have always held a dear place in the heart of Pope Benedict XVI. This is attested most clearly by the so-called “Ratzinger Schülerkreis,” which has convened annually since 1978. The word Schülerkreis means “circle of students,” referring to a group of alumni who were once doctoral or post-doctoral students of Professor Ratzinger at the universities of Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg. The group seeks to honor Ratzinger’s academic and spiritual legacy by promoting discussion of important theological topics.

The fondness of the Pope Emeritus for his erstwhile students extends, apparently, even to members of a fourth-grade catechism class he taught as a newly-ordained priest in Bogenhausen. Pope Benedict XVI’s description of the year he spent as a curate in Bogenhausen is equally fond: “That year was actually the loveliest time of my life.” 1

An essay posted this week (2 April 2018) on the website of America magazine presents the warm memories of Elisabeth Haggblade, an English and linguistics professor, who praises Pope Benedict for his gentleness as a catechist and for having responded to each of three letters she has sent him since the early 1950’s. Although the focus of Haggblade’s article is the Holy Father’s generosity in always responding to her letters, it is the content of one of his responses that I consider most interesting.

The second letter written by Haggblade received a response dated 4 February 1987 from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who was serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time. A photo of the original letter, composed in German, is included with Haggblade’s essay. Below is a translation of this letter: 2

February 4, 1987

Dear Mrs. Haggblade,

I was very pleased to hear once again, after such a long time, from a former Bogenhauser student. If I could determine your maiden name, perhaps it would stir up an image in my mind, for which your first name could not lend me enough of a clue.

Naturally, I am glad that you have a good memory of the religion classes from that time, and I am also glad for you, that, after the poverty of your youth, you can live now in good and humane circumstances in the United States. That you found it difficult or nearly impossible to accept the transition from the festive, Baroque form of Bavarian liturgy to the sobriety of post-conciliar American liturgy, with all its often rather banal improvisations, I can well understand. Church music remained for you a deep connection to the faith, in which you not only hear the sounds of your youth, but rather you listen more deeply to the call of the eternal and seek the nearness of Jesus Christ. So I hope that, from this innermost center of church music, there might open again a bridge to the liturgy of the Church, in which the same mystery—albeit under such meager forms—is hidden and, indeed, present in a lively way, and can thus become the source of new inspiration. With this same post, I am sending you a little book of mine, which touches upon these questions.

Heartfelt blessings for your further journey and friendly greetings.


Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

ATZINGER has often been accused, of course, of being unduly nostalgic with respect to his childhood experience of the liturgy. Concomitant with this accusation is typically a general rejection of Baroque forms as overwrought, unpastoral, or devoid of spiritual meaning.

The significance of this letter, I believe, is that it implicitly rejects this assessment of Ratzinger’s cherished memories of the liturgy of his youth by offering a theological vision of the interconnectedness of liturgical forms, sacred music, and personal faith. What emerges from this brief correspondence is not a sense of nostalgia, but rather a penetratingly theological approach to liturgical singing.

The Pope Emeritus presents church music as something central to life. It is a bridge, he contends, capable of uniting the faithful more deeply to the liturgical action. He describes this ability as an essential quality of church music that cannot be negated even by the relative wealth or poverty of liturgical forms.

HIS LETTER is certainly charming evidence of Pope Benedict XVI’s warmth and generosity in maintaining correspondence with his former students. It is, moreover, another confirmation of his profoundly ecclesiological vision of sacred music.


1   Peter Seewald, Last Testament: In his own words, Pope Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald, trans. Jacob Phillips (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 88.

2   The original letter (in German) is available here. This unofficial translation is my own.