On Wednesday, November 9, Pope Benedict XVI received a new honor: He was named an honorary citizen of Natz-Schabs (Naz-Siaves), the scenic town in northern Italy’s Bolzano region where his grandmother and great-grandmother were born.
Vatican Radio carried the address live as Benedict, accepting a certificate of citizenship from the Natz-Schabs delegation during the General Audience, spoke without a script—drawing from memory to talk about his mother’s love of the town and of his own explorations when, at the age of 13, he set off with his two siblings on a cycling expedition there.
Pope Benedict reminisced about his mother’s love of the region. “South Tyrol,” he said, “is a special country and is rooted in my heart through the stories that I heard from my mother. I never knew my great grandmother nor my grandmother—my grandmother died when I was 3—but I heard many of her stories, above all that throughout her life, she was nostalgic for South Tyrol and never really integrated in Bavaria.”
And then our Holy Father, smiling his shy smile, slipped into the robust dialect of a Tyrolean baker he remembered from early childhood:
Thinking of this I am reminded of another little story. As a girl, my mother worked for a family from Kufstein, and there she made a friend, who then married a baker. I myself as a child even met him. He was kind to my mother and would often say:
“Maretl, you must remember one thing: the Tyrol was made by the angels!”
And my mother kept this as a kind of testament that she then passed on to us. She was convinced, in her inner heart, that it was true.
The beauty of South Tyrol was verified by the young Josef Ratzinger when he biked across the region with his brother and sister. “We could see that it was really true,” he said, “that it had been made by the angels.”
Perhaps reflecting on the sheer beauty of South Tyrol helped to bring out the poet in the pope. He closed his remarks about this mountainous region of northern Italy with a nod to the beauty of the scenery, the architecture and the music, and warmth of the people who make this region their home.
Then, in the 50s, I went to South Tyrol where I could feel the special closeness of God that is expressed in the beauty of these lands.
But not only through Creation. It was beautiful because men have responded to God: if we think of the Gothic towers, the beautiful houses, the warmth and the kindness of people, the beautiful music, we know that men responded, and from this collaboration—between the Creator, his angels and men—a beautiful land was born, a land of extraordinary beauty.
And I am proud and happy to be part of it, one way or another.
Elisabeth Maria Tauber, Benedict XVI’s great-grandmother, his grandmother Maria Tauber-Peintner, and his mother Maria Peintner-Ratzinger must be smiling from heaven.