In German town, Benedict XVI known for love of cats, conversation


McClatchy Newspapers

REGENSBURG, Germany _ When he was a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI often delivered sermons at the German-language church in Campasanto Teutonico near St. Peter's Basilica, but his most heartfelt talks may have been the ones he gave after celebrating Mass.

"I went with him once," said Konrad Baumgartner, the head of the theology department at Regensburg University. "Afterwards, he went into the old cemetery behind the church.

"It was full of cats, and when he went out, they all ran to him. They knew him and loved him. He stood there, petting some and talking to them, for quite a long time. He visited the cats whenever he visited the church. His love for cats is quite famous."

Although his public image is that of a stern enforcer of church doctrine, in Regensburg, where the 78-year-old pope came into his own as a theologian, those who know the man known as "God's Rottweiler" say his soft, human side has been ignored.

The pope loves cats, can't resist Christmas cookies and, three months ago, waxed on about how he dreamed of retiring from the hectic life at the Vatican to enjoy his last years reading, writing and talking with friends.

His brother Georg still lives in Regensburg and is Benedict's strongest connection to the town he left for Munich when he became archbishop. Georg Ratzinger, also ordained in the church, spent decades as the musical director of the famous Regensburger Domspatzen boys' choir. He lives down a twisting cobbled street from the towering Gothic Regensburg Cathedral.

"The totally wrong picture is painted of my brother," he said Thursday in a dining room decorated with iconic art and photos and letters from Pope John Paul II. "He's a cheerful man, friendly. But he does have principles that he will stand for."

In fact, Ratzinger believes that instead of being divisive, Benedict will build bridges _ "though there are limits."

He bridled at how some members of the English press have treated his brother. One paper ran a headline saying "From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi," but Ratzinger said all boys were forced to join the Hitler Youth and that his brother was never a Nazi.

"In our family, we were taught they were evil," he said.

His brother's interests included music, Ratzinger said. "He played the organ quite well, but he hasn't played for years now."

When he was younger, Benedict XVI hiked in the Tyrol mountains to relax. As he grew older and had less time and energy, he tended the magnolia tree outside his house, cleaned the fountain under the statue of Mary and thinned out the ivy.

Agnes Heindl has been Georg Ratzinger's housekeeper for 10 years, and she's come to know the new pope well.

She said she often drove then-Cardinal Ratzinger to his house after the brothers had shared Sunday dinner. His favorite foods were Weisswurst _ the traditional white Bavarian sausage _ and anything sweet. She said he's known for trying every type of Christmas cookie at a party.

"Oh, he could just talk about anything, really," she said. "He liked to talk about friends and how people he knew were doing. He's a very pleasant man to have a conversation with."

She clutched 16 Benedict roses, white, as she talked.

"Maybe if I can't get the flowers to him, someone will take a picture of them, and he'll see that we're thinking of him," she said.

She spoke with him again this week. He called on Wednesday morning, after getting busy signals at his brother's house Tuesday night. When she answered, a well-known voice said: "Can I please speak to my brother."

"The Holy Father called, and all I could do was stammer, 'So how do I address you now?' He laughed," she said.

She said she's glad she heard him laugh. His new job isn't easy, and he'll need to laugh. She said that when he was relaxing, there was never a mystery about what would make him laugh.

"Oh, cats," she said. " He loves them."

She pointed up a staircase to a wall full of painted plates, each depicting a different cat. The brothers collected the plates together, she said.

"When we were on vacation, a cat, a little kitten, would come by, and he'd be giddy, almost giggling with joy," she said." Cats love him; they always go to him straight away. And he loves them back."

He doesn't have a cat, however. Heindl doesn't think he can have one living in the Vatican.

"He was always content to play with the street cats," she said. "I don't know much about Rome, but I know there's no shortage of cats there."

Benedict still owns the house he bought on the edge of Regensburg in 1970, but he visits only a couple times a year. The city adjusted his deed this week: It now lists the owner as "Holy Father."

On Thursday afternoon, Chico the cat _ perhaps the closest thing there is to The Pope's Cat, strolled from the shaded arch between the pope's front door and his garage. Chico belongs to Rupert Hofbauer, who looks after Benedict's garden and home.

"Chico is his friend, though he scratched him over Christmas because he didn't want to go outside, all day or night, and the cardinal tried to put him out," Hofbauer said. "They usually get along well, though."

Hofbauer and many others in Regensburg, where the new pope remains on the faculty rolls, shared mixed emotions, pride and sorrow, when they heard the news. Georg Ratzinger said he almost feels as if he's lost his brother, knowing that it won't be easy to see him now.

"I thought he'd retire soon, and we would finally have a lot of time to finish all the talks we've started through the years. We talked about that, just this Christmas when he was home," Hofbauer said.

"He thought it sounded nice, to retire, to take it easy. That's not how it worked out though, is it?"

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