Pope Benedict XVI’s cousin,
Erika Kopp, who lives in Blackburn South and migrated to Australia from
Germany with her husband Karl in 1955, recalls visiting a shop with her
then six-year-old cousin Joseph and her aunt.
“The shopkeeper was an elderly woman, and she asked Joseph, 'What are
you going to be when you grow up?’ Mrs. Kopp said.
“He replied: ‘I am going to be a Bishop’.”
Mrs. Kopp, 79, was not surprised. “That was Joseph’s upbringing,”
she said. “There was lots of prayer. His father was a high-ranking
policeman, and before he went on patrol, he would always make the sign of
So did the shopkeeper ask young Erika what she wanted to be when she grew
“Yes”, she chuckled. “I said a baker, and I was. I worked in
my father’s bakery shop.”
The events of the past few weeks have been overwhelming for Mrs. Kopp and
her family. Karl died in 2003 at the age of 83, but she is close to
her daughter Veronica, and three granddaughters: Laura, 28, Rebecca, 26
and Helen, 23.
A bright and active woman, Mrs. Kopp is delighted that her cousin has been
chosen to lead the world’s Catholics and has full confidence in him.
“I think he is the best person,” Mrs. Kopp said. “His mental
capacity is still as good as if he were younger.
“I feel very excited and proud. Joseph is such a good man, a
simple man, very quiet. He is also such a controlled man, very
exact, always on time. I don’t think he can help himself.
His father was like that.
“Joseph has studied all his life, and this is the highest thing you can
achieve. He was always so clever, such a strong thinker. That
is a gift from God. Even as a little boy everyone realised, Joseph
is the wunderkind.
“When we were children I said to Auntie (Joseph’s mother Maria), ‘I
wish I could be as clever as Joseph’, and she always said ‘Erika, when
you finish school, you will be able to count your money’.
“Auntie meant that I would be bright enough to get on in life. I’m
not as clever as Joseph, but I’ve got a good IQ and I’m 79.”
Mrs. Kopp’s father, Benno Rieger, was the brother of Pope Benedict’s
mother, Maria, and young Erika spent childhood holidays with Joseph and
his siblings Georg and Maria.
So how did Mrs. Kopp hear the news about her cousin’s election?
“My 86-year-old German friend phoned in the morning and said, ‘Erika,
your cousin is Pope’, she said.
“I said ‘Martha, I don’t know’, and she said ‘Yes, it’s true.’
“I phoned Veronica and said, ‘Joseph is the Pope, they voted for him’.”
Laura said her grandmother’s phone had been “melting” with calls to
Germany as the family monitored developments at the Vatican.
“We have heard stories about Grandma’s cousin, the Cardinal, since we
were kids,” Laura said. “It’s all a bit manic at the moment.”
Mrs. Kopp has since spoken to her 84-year-old brother, Benno, in Germany.
She also has a sister in Germany, Flora, who is 82.
“Benno always thought Joseph would have a better life not being Pope,”
she said. “When Joseph was called to Rome (on 25 November, 1981 he was
made Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), everyone
in Munich was worried that Joseph would be homesick because he and his
siblings were so close and were being separated.
“When we were children, Maria, Joseph’s sister, used to say, ‘If
Joseph is a priest I will cook for him.’ And that is what she did.
Maria looked after Joseph in the Vatican. She never married.
Joseph had an apartment a bit outside, and Maria was like his housekeeper.
“When Maria died (on 2 November, 1991, aged 69) Joseph took it very
hard. They were so close.”
Mrs. Kopp has many fond memories of
childhood holidays with Joseph and his family.
“Joseph wasn’t a sportsperson,” she said. “They had all the music
you could imagine and a big piano which Joseph and Maria played a
lot. I rode Maria’s bicycle. Uncle spent all his money on
their education, and Joseph attended a very exclusive school.
“Joseph’s mother did a lot for him. She was my sponsor when I
was confirmed. She was very talented and a hard worker. She
made Joseph teddy bears, and animals, and rabbits, whatever you can
think. She made them by hand.
“I was at Joseph’s ordination (on 29 June, 1951), and he said, ‘Erika,
I haven’t seen you for 14 years’. I would never have known how
long it had been. Later he said to me, ‘Erika, I’ve still got my
“Auntie was also a very good cook. She made these wonderful
preserved walnuts, and after our meal we were each given one.”
The childhood playmates last saw each other in 1985 when Mrs. Kopp visited
Germany, and her cousin was Cardinal of Munich.
“I visited his residence which was like Buckingham Palace,” she said.
Mrs. Kopp proudly shows off clippings from German newspapers charting her
cousin’s rise, along with a letter from her cousin, Maria, when Joseph
was appointed Cardinal in June 1977.
“Everyone says we look the same, they say, ‘Erika, you look more like
Joseph than his sister’,” she beams.
Family and friends have suggested Mrs. Kopp visit her cousin in Rome.
“What would I say to a Pope?” she said. “I would say ‘Joseph, I am
so proud of you. I hope God helps you carry this hard mission.”
Until then, Mrs. Kopp has a congratulatory card to send Pope Benedict XVI.
“I bought one from Coles,” she said. “I just want him to know how
proud I am of him.”