Secrets to Family Holiness from the Ratzinger Family

Holy families produce vocations and saints. Take the example of Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin. Five girls entered the religious life. One of them became a saint—St. Therese of Lisieux. There are countless stories of families where two or three siblings take up a vocation in the Church. This past week Bishop Parkes congratulated his brother Fr. Parkes on his appointment as the bishop of Savannah, Georgia. And just a few weeks ago, we saw the reunion of Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) with his ailing brother, Georg Ratzinger, days before his death. Another family that produced a pope and a monsignor. What is the secret?  Family prayer.

With the news of Georg Ratzinger’s passing, I decided it was time to pull a book off my shelf and give it a read, Ignatius Press’s My Brother, The Pope, an interview type book which recounts the memories and experiences of Pope Benedict’s brother. Chapter two of the book recounts Georg’s memories of family life and prayer. Perhaps today, we all can look at this family, and see how their practices might inspire family prayer once again and with that hopefully the grace of vocations in the Church. Let’s discover the secrets to family holiness through the memory of Pope Benedict’s brother, Georg Ratzinger.

The Rosary

Georg Ratzinger recalled the family celebrations of Christmas which included a family rosary late in the afternoon. Commenting further on this Marian devotion, Georg says, “Praying the Rosary was a usual thing in our family, often daily, but at least every Saturday” (p. 43). The Irish immigrant, Fr. Patrick Peyton, was known for his saying, “the family that prays together, stays together.”  For Peyton this was the family rosary. For the Ratzinger’s, the rosary had a prominent place in family devotion. What might the efficacy of the rosary be in this situation?  With the succession of Hail Mary’s, we ask Mary to pray for us; there is grace to be received from such a request. At the end of the rosary, we often pray “may we imitate what [the mysteries] contain and imitate what they promise.”  Through the rosary, minds and hearts are touched by the gospel stories and transformed by God’s grace.

Daily Prayer Together

Mealtimes are common moments for family prayer, where each member bows their head and gives thanks to God for the blessings received. Unfortunately for so many families this is where family prayer stops. Meal prayer might be the only time families pray together. Georg describes the family meal prayer as something more than just “Bless us o Lord…”:  “Every day we prayed together, and in fact before and after each meal (we ate our breakfast, dinner, and supper together). The main prayer time was after the midday dinner, when the particular concerns of the family were expressed.” (p. 45). Each day the family talked about their struggles and offered prayers together for one another.

Devotion to the Saints

Joseph and Georg’s father was a police officer. Part of their family devotion was to pray for their father’s protection and safety each day. The family offered prayers of petition and intercession on behalf of each other. For their father, they prayed a “prayer to Saint Dismas, the “good thief,” a former criminal who was crucified together with Jesus on Mount Calvary, repented on the cross, and begged the Lord for mercy. We prayed to him, the patron of repentant thieves, to protect Father from professional troubles” (p. 45). A beautiful sentiment indeed to turn to the saints, especially a patron saint of something in particular, especially for a member of the family.

When families know the stories of the saints, especially the children, can be inspired by their stories. Turning to their intercession, reinforces the value of prayer. Which saints could your family implore for one another?  St. Florian for a firefighter. St. Luke for doctors. Simply google, “patron saint of____” and you will be sure to find one. Allow a saint to become your family’s friend and intercessor.

Bless Your Children

It is my hope that prayer is a part of the bedtime routine of families when parents tuck their children in to bed at night. There is a custom for parents to bless their children. Georg remembers, “When we were children, our parents also put us to bed and prayed our evening prayers with us. They used a very special form of blessing and repeated it three times. Unfortunately, I do not remember the wording today” (p. 46). For a family today, that blessing could be as simple as “may the Lord bless, keep, and protect you this night” or it could include a blessing with holy water and sprinkling the child.

Respect for Sunday

As you could probably imagine, two boys who become priests in the Catholic Church most likely served at Mass. For the Ratzinger boys, this was true. If you want to raise up saints within your family and promote vocations to priesthood and consecrated life, never skip Sunday Mass. Sanctify your Sunday. Try to honor the sabbath to the best of your ability and mark it as a day of rest. Let your children serve at Mass.

Monthly Confession

The practice of Confession seems relegated to twice a year for most families (if that)—Advent and Lent. Georg believed his family overcame problems and difficulties by having recourse to monthly confession. Describing confession, he said, “It is, after all, the most generous offer of grace that God can possibly make us” (48). We believe that the sacraments give grace to those who receive. We receive graces every time we receive the Eucharist and the same is true for confession. If you want to be a saint and overcome the vices of your life, make regular confession a part of your (family) spirituality.

Live Liturgically

Georg Ratzinger described how his family lived their life based on the liturgical year. For most, the observance of Lent is the most liturgically lived with additional prayer, fasting, and discipline. During the Lenten season he remembered “Mount of Olives” devotions which included a sermon, and the recalling of our Lord’s falling to the ground three times in the Garden. For the family, May was a special month of Marian devotion in addition to October as the month of the Rosary. The Presentation of Jesus in the temple was also a major family celebration with special customs with candles and the recitation of the rosary. Each day of the week has a special devotion. Every month too. The family celebrated the saint name days of each member. These are all devotional ideas for families today to put into practice. Religious practice and observance need not be done only on Sunday but should be observed every day of one’s life. Living liturgically as a family allows a Godly mindset to take root in all the members.

You Can Solve the Vocation Problem

Georg Ratzinger made a few observations about today’s culture. He said, “I am convinced that the lack of this traditional piety in many families is also a reason why there are too few priestly vocations today” (46) and “If there are no religious practices even in family life, then this has an effect on all the rest of human life. I often speak with brother priests, and in almost all cases it seems that they prayed regularly as a family and went to Mass together. This then shaped their whole lives and directed them toward God. Thus, their vocation fell on fertile soil” (47). Families that pray and worship together seek holiness and with that it encourages vocations in the Church. With the waning of traditional piety, so too have vocations waned. If we want the Church to thrive, it is time for the family to pray together and put God first in the home once again. 


Fr. Edward Looney was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Green Bay in June 2015, and is an internationally recognized Marian theologian, writer, speaker, and radio personality. Author of the best-selling books, A Lenten Journey with Mother MaryA Heart Like Mary’s and A Rosary Litany, he has also written a prayer book for the only American-approved Marian apparition received by Adele Brise in 1859 in Champion, Wisconsin. He currently serves as Administrator of two rural Wisconsin parishes. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram at the handle @FrEdwardLooney.

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