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From Humble Beginnings, Benedict Made His Mark on Faith

8:51 AM, Feb 11, 2013   |    comments
  • Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, celebrates Mass at a mountain site near the Bavarian town of Ruhpolding, Germany, in the summer of 1952 (Photo: Handout Getty Images)
  • Pope Benedict XVI (image by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty)
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Ruby Russell, Janelle Dumalaon, Sumi Somaskanda and Eric Lyman, USA TODAY

BERLIN - When Joseph Ratzinger was 7, he wrote to the baby Jesus - the Bavarians equivalent of writing to Santa - telling him what he wanted for Christmas.

"Dear Baby Jesus, come quickly down to earth," he wrote. "You will bring joy to children. Also bring me joy."

The young boy who would grow up to become Pope Benedict XVI decades later requested a Mass prayer book with parallel Latin and German texts, green robes to wear in a dress-up game of Mass in which he would take the role of priest, and a picture of the sacred heart of Jesus.

"He was destined to be someone who loves the church above everything," said Brennan Pursell, author of the biography, Benedict of Bavaria: An Intimate Portrait of the Pope and His Homeland. "If there were early signs of anything - exceptional intelligence, maturity of interest and a lack of worldly concerns."

Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign on Feb. 28 because he was too ill to carry on - the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.

Ratzinger was born in 1927, in the Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn, the youngest child of a policeman and his South Tyrolean wife. Those who have known him say that the studious theologian, widely recognized for bent toward academic writings and gus sharp intellect, showed early the signs of what he would become, in spite of the obstacles life in Germany under National Socialism would throw his way.

He entered the seminary at the age of 12, but was unable to avoid becoming a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. In 1943 he was drafted into the anti-aircraft defense and was later captured by American forces and spent several months as a prisoner of war.

He went on to excel in academia, becoming a professor of theology first at Freising College in the late 1950s, then in Bonn and the University of Muenster before took a chair in dogmatic theology at the University of Tuebingen. Alienated by the student protests at Tuebingen, he returned to Bavaria, to the University of Regensburg.

"He was sort of reserved, not demanding or dominant, rather friendly - I was kind of blessed to have him as a boss," recalled Siegfried Wiedenhofer, professor emeritus of theology at Johann Goethe University in Frankfurt, a student of Ratzinger's at Tübingen and Regensburg University, as well as his research assistant from1967 to 1977. "He had a very unpretentious way about him, a reserved type who didn't want to be in the limelight."

But it was a very different period of political unrest in Europe which some say had the greatest impact on Ratzinger's theological development.

Reverend Monsignor Kevin Irwin, professor of liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington says that as professor at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, Ratzinger was "irrevocably marked" by the waves of student protest that swept much of the globe in 1968 - the same year that Pope Paul VI issued his Humanae Vitae.

"From that time on he's been very keen to be clear about what the Catholic church teaches and what we do not teach," Irwin said. "1968 was the year that Pope Paul issued his encyclical on birth control and that caused a great deal of protests and dissent and I believe that [Benedict's] understanding was that once you allow dissent you are not being clear about what you believe and for him what we believe is obviously what is true."

Benedict was frequently accused of being anti-progressive, particularly regarding his focus on traditional interpretation of sexual morality and gender roles within the church, although many argue that it is a pope's role is one of preserving traditions.

"He sees no reason to overturn, or replace, or deconstruct or dismantle catholic teaching -it's is an incredibly rich tradition," said Pursell. "He is very interested in seeing it persist and join other, modern belief systems in dialogue. He loves Mozart, he has no desire to see it performed on electric guitars."

A great lover of music who is said to obtain great pleasure from playing Mozart and Beethoven on the piano, Benedicts aesthetic sensibilities were apparent in his attachment to the traditional vestments of the papacy, reviving items like the striking red shoes and Santa-Claus-like camauro hat that had fallen out of use for centuries.

Despite his reserved nature, Benedict XVI will also be remembered for his stirring public addresses. George Weigel calls him, "one of the finest catechists and preachers of our time" while Pursell calls his weekly catechisms on the saints and writers of the gospel "sensational."

"He has continued to lead the Church in the direction indicated by Vatican II: toward the New Evangelization, or what I and others have come to call Evangelical Catholicism," said Weigel.

"I hope that he is remembered for his very clear message to Western governments in particular that they no hack off their intellectual and spiritual roots, that they don't give up on youth," said Pursell. "I think he was concerned about the decline of the West and has said some very powerful things about it. But I am not sure if anyone's been listening."

Those who observe the pope closely say that he never forgot his roots as a theologian, first and foremost.

"When John Paul II asked him to become the prefect of Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, one of Ratzinger's conditions was, as long as I can keep publishing as a private theologian, and John Paul II said, no problem," said Pursell.

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