Papst Benedikt XVI und ein Passionist: Pater Martin Bialas. Pope Benedict XVI and a Passionist: Father Martin Bialas.
Interview of Father Martin Bialas, C.P. by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
The April 19, 2005 election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI was a special moment for the Catholic Church and people of all cultures who seek peace and reconciliation. For Father Martin Bialas, C.P. it was personal. The new Pope was his former professor and friend of many years. In Schwarzenfeld, Germany on May 14, 2005 Father Bialas graciously agreed to a half-hour audio tape interview with me. In his own words he talked about how he has known the new Pope Benedict XVI.
The article below, printed with the consent of Father Bialas, is my summary of the interview. It merits publication in the Heritage Newsletter because archivists have the responsibility to actively preserve history for future generations. In years to come this will be an important primary document for Father Bialas and the Passionist Congregation. Also, publication of this essay is an important reminder to respectfully listen and preserve the stories of people around us who participate and shape historical events. Today this is an urgent challenge for the Passionist Congregation throughout the world.
Father Martin Bialas was born in Hultschin, Germany on May 12, 1940, professed his first vows as a Passionist on September 3, 1963, and was ordained a Passionist priest on August 10, 1968. He is a member of the Passionist Vice-Province of the Five Wounds: the Passionists of Germany and Austria. He resides at the Passionistenkloster, Miesbergallee 16, D-92521 Schwarzenfeld, Germany. Father Bialas is an international preacher on Passionist topics. Among his many publications is The Mysticism of the Passion in St. Paul of the Cross (Ignatius Press, 1990). —Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
“We Have A New Pope”
Like so many people Father Martin went about his day even as he waited for news about a new Pope. On April 19, 2005 he was preaching a spiritual retreat for sisters at the Passionist retreat house in Munich, Germany. At the conclusion of his evening talk, he went to the Passionist monastery cloister whereupon Father Stefan Neugebauer, C.P., greeted him with the news. “Father Martin, we have a new Pope!” Patiently Martin waited in front of the television. Then came the announcement: Joseph was the name of the new Pope. During the long pause that followed, Father Martin thought “Joseph who? Ratzinger?” However, he quickly dismissed the idea. One of the other cardinals named Joseph must be the one. “And then Ratzinger. It struck me! It struck me!”
Father Martin revealed two reactions upon getting the news. His first “reaction was not enthusiastic joy.” This was immediately followed by a sense of great excitement. In any case Father Martin knew that the election meant that some treasured long-standing rituals of prayer and friendship would change. Specifically, no longer was Cardinal Ratzinger going to be able to come to the Passionist house at Regensburg, Germany where they had con-celebrated Mass and then joined together for an informal breakfast.
Father Martin had known Professor Joseph Ratzinger since 1970. It was at that time that Father Martin began doctoral studies in theology with Professor Ratzinger. He and Professor Auer were both members of the Catholic Faculty at Regensburg University in Regensburg. Seven years later, in 1977, Father Martin completed his doctoral degree in theology under their direction. Often times that meant meeting three or four times a week with his professor.
Finding the experience to be positive, Father Martin wanted to continue his studies with Professor Ratzinger by participation in the German program know as habilitation. Successful completion would allow the person to be an academic professor at a university. Professor Ratzinger agreed to the arrangement. Fortunately another student had just completed his habilitation. Father Martin Bialas was his successor.
“I was very happy.” recalled Father Martin. However, some months later, Professor Ratzinger was nominated as Bishop of Munich. When he accepted it became quite clear to Father Martin that it was going to be virtually impossible to continue his habilitation with Professor Ratzinger.
At the same time, changes occurred in the life of Father Martin. In June 1977 he made his way to Munich to attend the Passionist Provincial Chapter. Theology was foremost on his mind as he was preparing for his doctoral examination: the rigorosum. His plan was to attend the chapter and then resume his studies. “And then it was very surprising to me” said Father Martin, “that I had been elected as provincial.” He was thirty-seven. Admitting that it was “a big decision” to ponder, he decided to accept the three year assignment. Once the term was completed he had every hope to continue his studies with Ratzinger’s successor. God and the Passionists, however, had other plans because Father Martin was re-elected for four times more. Altogether he served fifteen years as the provincial of the Passionist German-Austrian Province.
Regensburg and Cardinal Ratzinger
Even as he was provincial Father Martin stayed at the Passionist monastery in Schwarzenfeld and served as director of the Passionist student residence in nearby Regensburg. This was a university residence built originally for Passionist aspirants in the mid 1960s and, over time, used as a residence for approximately forty- six male students matriculated at Regensburg University. In 1970 Father Martin had received permission to begin doctoral studies. His provincial stipulated, and Father Martin agreed, that he would pursue the degree on the condition that he also be the director and administrator of the house.
Ironically, this responsibility to oversee the Regensburg student residence proved to be the link which allowed Father Martin to continue his relationship with Ratzinger. Though he resided in Munich, at the same time Bishop Ratzinger continued to maintain a private family house very near to the Passionists in Regensburg. On many occasions Bishop Ratzinger returned to Regensburg to visit the house-some twenty-five to thirty times a year-to see his brother Georg for holidays, for private days of recollection, or in preparation before an important event. However, since his house had no chapel Bishop Ratzinger asked Father Martin if he might use the Passionist chapel at the Regensburg residence. Of course, Father Martin was delighted to accommodate his former professor. So the practice started that Bishop Ratzinger would often come to the Passionist residence, always with his sister Mary-she died in 1991-to celebrate the liturgy. It was a set ritual. “A half an hour, a little bit more for Mass, con-celebration in the chapel and afterwards he went in our room, the breakfast room, and we had breakfast for a half an hour. And afterwards,” said Father Martin, “he went to his house.” It was only a ten minute walk. If the weather was bad, Father Martin might pick him up by car. But normally, Cardinal Ratzinger liked the early morning walk.
In 1981 Cardinal Ratzinger was called to Rome as the Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith. Consequently, the opportunities to see one another were a bit less frequent. One event that Father Martin enjoyed a great deal was the so-called Schülerkreis. It was a gathering, once a year, of the twenty to thirty people who have made a doctorate or habilitation with Cardinal Ratzinger. For the last several years the meeting was held in August at Spindlhof, Germany near Regensburg. Whenever possible Cardinal Ratzinger arrived at his home in late July and stayed there till September. “And for this occasion I came by car and picked him up and took him to Spindlhof, about 20 kilometers from his house. And then I drove him back again” said Father Martin.
At other times, when Cardinal Ratzinger made his three or four trips to Pentling, Germany where he has his private house, he and Father Martin would con-celebrate at 7:30 A.M at the Passionist residence in Regensburg. “So it was, the last time, I con-celebrated with Cardinal Ratzinger,” remembers Father Martin, “was January 7, 2005.” At that time they agreed to follow the same practice they had followed for twenty years: to see each other the week before Pentecost when Cardinal Ratzinger was supposed to come to his house. On April 19, as soon as Father Martin heard that Cardinal Ratzinger was now the Pope, he realized that their twenty-seven years of liturgy and breakfast had come to an end.
Additional reflections by Father Martin
Father Martin was energized and reflective. It took about fifteen minutes for him to share the above story. When he was finished, I asked if I might ask some questions for clarification. “Yes, please, please do,” answered Father Martin. As is his custom, Father Martin smiled, took a portion of snuff which he carries with him, and we continued. It was during this part of the interview that Father Martin offered some more insight on his longtime friend.
Having a home in Regensburg-Pentling proved wise for Cardinal Ratzinger for several reasons. It was his professorial residence while he had taught at the University. Furthermore, Regensburg was home to Georg, his brother. He is also a priest and was the director of the famous Regensburger Domspatzen: the Regensburg Cathedral choir. They are great friends. They often travel together and go on vacation.
Father Martin graciously explained the personality of the new Pope. “First of all I would say that the Pope is a very humble personality. I suffered very much when I read in German media, the press, and it was said he was so severe, so proud… It wasn’t true. It was the opposite. My experience was the opposite of this.”
One of the most surprising facts I learned from Father Martin is that Cardinal Ratzinger does not possess a drivers license. As a result, it has not been unusual for Father Martin to drive his former professor to various destinations in the greater Regensburg area. At the same time, in years past, especially when the health of the former Cardinal was stronger, it was also not unusual to see him as a passenger on a public bus in Regensburg. “He was very humble,” said Father Martin.
That same humility has been a long time quality in the intellectual life of Cardinal Ratzinger. Listening to Father Martin, it appears to me that he developed a kind of reverential fear before his mentor because his mind “was astonishing. Especially his memory.” To make his point he recalled an incident: how in the past he had been discussing a meeting they had had five years ago. Father Martin said: “Mister Professor I said this and this and he said ‘No, no you said it another way. I remember it.'” Even as he told the story Father Martin’s face had a student glow, as if he had immediately lived through another oral examination and walked away with greater knowledge and rigor to pursue the intellectual life.
Because Pope Benedict is 78, Father Martin readily admits that the memory of his former teacher might not be “so sharp.” That is a natural part of the age process. At the same time, Father Martin is quick to point out that the Pope still remains an active thinker. “He is an intellectual, yes he is. But as a personality he is very humble.”
Overall, Father Martin believes that “students have liked Professor Ratzinger. They liked him. He was very gentle to the students. He gave them freedom but also he was concerned, right. But he was very gentle. He was famous in Germany. So many students come to Regensburg especially to hear Ratzinger as a professor.”
Again, the good rapport was obvious in that past students with degrees or habilitation returned to participate in the annual Doctoranden-Colloquium: a colloquium of doctoral students. “He was a generous and gentle professor.” As a teacher, Father Martin said his “main quality was that his lessons were so clear and so precise.” In many cases, lectures were clear enough to be published. “And this was respected. Also,” says Father Martin, “his [intellectual] enemies respected this. On this point he was famous. He was a genius. And the students were surprised by his formulation…Not only method, but the way he expounded it and formulated with the German language. It was extraordinary.” Father Martin found this all the more impressive because lectures in theology could range from one hundred to two hundred people. Historically, seminars might have ten to twenty people or as many as thirty or forty.
In the course of the fifteen question and answer session I asked Father Martin “what sense of the spirit of the church did you learn from him or did it help you understand?” His answer put them back together in prayer at the Passionist chapel in Regensburg. “Ratzinger, the Pope, is a man, a priest, a bishop of a very, very deep faith. Always after the Mass he and myself make a thanksgiving for some minutes and also when we were talking during breakfast there was no question that he had a very, very deep faith and he showed it. You could, you could [see] that he was not only a professor who was sitting on his desk and writing from the brain. But he did already meditate and effect it in prayer.”
As one might expect, Father Martin has every hope and prayer that his fellow German people, Passionists, and people all over the world can experience some of the same respect and reverence which he has come to know over all these years, since 1970. “I would say give him a chance! Not to make prejudices and say Ratzinger is so strict. Give him a chance as a Pope!” says Father Martin. “Because as a prefect of the Congregation of the Faith his task was to correct. And he suffered with this. Now as the Pope he must be the father. And he can and he will. We will be surprised. We will be surprised in the future to hear some things of Ratzinger.”
As the interview came to an end Father Martin offered some closing thoughts. “I am very hopeful. And for myself it is a very great privilege to pray for him because it is a very hard job. He didn’t want it. He didn’t want it. But he accepted it. And I knew it. If the Cardinals elected him, and the moderator of the conclave he has the possibility to say please don’t elect me and he made I am sure some remarks. But if the cardinals would elect him then he of course would see this as the will of God and he would accept. But it is very hard. And I will pray for him. And I said to him at the audience soon after his election [April 25, 2005], ‘Sanctity, now we will not see each other in the future.’ And he said ‘Oh yes Father Martin we have the possibility.’ And I am sure that I will see him again.” In fact, Father Martin Bialas has plans to see Pope Benedict XVI at Castle Gandolfo in Rome from September 1-4, 2005.
Father Martin thinks Passionists have to remember an important point about Pope Benedict XVI. He “knows the Passionists very well. He knows Paul of the Cross very well because of my studies, and he read it and we are talking. He knows every religious from here, from Schwarzenfeld and Munich. He was there. So he’s sympathetic and so on. And also to Paul of the Cross, he knows many things about our order from me.” Looking back Father Martin thinks that he has had a good relationship with the former Cardinal Ratzinger and present Pope. As to the future? ” I think so in the future there is a possibility that he would say also something about Paul of the Cross and the Passionists.”
Father Martin offered some final thoughts on his picture with the present Pope Benedict XVI soon after he was elected. “You can see here I am very pleased because I wanted and went to Rome. I wanted to speak personally to him.” “Joy” was very much present.
Of course, this was a very quick encounter. After the interview Father Martin Bialas told me that the picture makes him so grateful that he had the opportunity to know Pope Benedict XVI in such a personal way. However, as he had said earlier, “their twenty-seven years of liturgy and breakfast had come to an end.”
It is the hope of this writer and Father Martin Bialas, C.P. that their shared past graces become part of the life of the Roman Catholic Church and peoples world-wide.