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My Cousin the Pope

Pope Benedict XVI's cousin

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 the cross.”

So did the shopkeeper ask young Erika what she wanted to be when she grew up?

“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 animals’.

“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.”

By Felicity Dargan

Reprinted with permission from Kairos Catholic Journal Archdiocese of Melbourne.

My Cousin the Pontiff

Pope Benedict XVI



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