Pope Benedict XVI is somewhat a forgotten man these days. The pope emeritus, who shocked the world when he resigned last spring, is usually referenced now only in stories about his successor, Pope Francis, who’s become the darling of the press, especially in the West.
But in the cloistered Vatican City, Pope Benedict is still very much revered and respected. I know this because I was privileged enough to be invited to perform in a private concert there Wednesday, January 15th, in honor of Benedict’s brother’s 90th Birthday.
The elderly brothers share a passion for their Catholic faith and music. Msgr Georg Ratzinger, also a priest, is a retired Kapelmeister (Choir Master) in Germany.
The concert took place at Vatican Radio headquarters, which sits atop the highest location at the Vatican surrounded by the gardens. It looks down on St. Peter’s Basilica and can only be approached by a narrow, winding road that zigzags up the hill. On the last curve before the summit is the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is a pensive place for reflection and prayer. Tourists cannot see this part of the Vatican.
On the other side of the Vatican Radio headquarters, and a little lower on the hill is the Mater Ecclesiae residence, where the retired pope now lives. It is a stately structure that appears to grow right from the surrounding garden itself. Between these two buildings a pair of cats wonder about the grounds. All the staff know the felines belong to Pope Benedict and feed them. The cats, however seem unaware of their regal owner.
The concert was organized by German journalist Michael Hesemann, who is a close friend of Msgr. Ratzinger. Hesemann and I met more than a year ago in Rome at a reception for an International music festival. He gave me his most recent book "My Brother the Pope," who he co-authored with Msgr. Ratzinger. I gave him my CD of solo piano music called "Classic Beauty." We corresponded frequently. He invited me to Regensburg last year for the monsignor’s 89th birthday. There was talk then of organizing a 90th birthday concert in Regensburg, where the monsignor still lives.
But the storm of the next few months put even the thought of those plans on hold. In February his brother, Pope Benedict XVI announced to the world he would resign, the first pope to do so in more than half a millennia. Then the conclave to choose his successor.
As Pope Francis emerged from the Loggia of St. Peter’s on that cold rainy night in March, he also immediately overshadowed the image of Pope Benedict. But even though Pope Benedict has moved into the background he is still in the foreground of those who live at the Vatican.
In October the talk of the concert began again. But this would be private. No one could know. The performers included myself, the only American, plus violinist Baptiste Pawlik from Dusseldorf, and Tenor Wolfgang Noeth who was accompanied by pianist Wolfgang Kraus, both from Regensburg. The concert was held in the recording studio of the Vatican Radio. So intimate the room, that we were performing within fifteen feet of the monsignor and the 86 year old Benedict, who is still addressed by many as The Holy Father.
A total of about 50 people attended, mostly staff and clergy. Benedict entered the room first, as homage to his brother, the guest of honor. Dressed in papal white cassock and coat and brown shoes, Benedict, who appears less frail than before his retirement, was accompanied by his longtime aide, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein. All stood and applauded. Then all remained standing while the monsignor entered.
The classical music we performed was a combination of both sacred and secular, including violinist Pawlik’s incredibly beautiful Meditation from Thais by Jules Massenet. Pawlik also joined Noeth for a duet of Cesar Franck’s Panis Angelicus. Noeth also sang a selection of arias. I performed three pieces, the second of which was Sposalizio, by Franz Liszt. It was specially chosen for the concert. It is inspired by Raphael’s famous painting of the same name. It is of the wedding of the Virgin Mary and Joseph. The names of which also belong to the parents the Ratzinger brothers. Now the two brothers are all that remain of their family.
After the concert, both Benedict and his brother seemed quite moved. Benedict immediately came over to the performers and thanked each one of us individually. Photos were taken, and memories were made that will last a lifetime.
Lauren Green currently serves as Fox News Channel's (FNC) chief religion correspondent based in the New York bureau. She joined FNC in 1996. Her new book is "Lighthouse Faith: God as a Living Reality in a World Immersed in Fog."