Pope Benedict XVI, who turns 85 today and celebrates seven years as pope this week, has long been considered a guardian of the faith, upholding the traditional teachings of the church leading the clergy in the defense of the faith.
Regarded one of the sharpest theologians in the church both before and during his pontificate, in person he is soft-spoken and grandfatherly. It is these latter qualities that endear him to the public although it doesn’t always spare him controversy and negative media coverage.
Rise to the top
Pope Benedict’s theology is based on years of study, ministry and Vatican experience. His down to earth, unpretentious manner comes from his humble upbringing in rural Germany. He was born in Marktl am Inns, Germany on April 16, 1927. His father, a policeman, came from a long line of farmers and his mother worked as a cook in local hotels before marrying.
His faith formation began in Traunstein, a small village near the Austrian border, just 30 kilometers from Salzburg. This was also where his love of Mozart was formed.
It was the faith education he received at home that prepared him to deal with the harsh reality of Nazi hostility toward the Catholic Church. As a young boy he witnessed a parish priest being beaten by Nazis just before celebrating Mass. In the midst of this he discovered the truth and beauty of faith in Christ and followed his older brother Georg into the seminary. He began his formation for the priesthood in 1939, only to have it interrupted by World War II.
At the time it was obligatory for all young boys to enroll in the Hitler Youth. In a book of memoirs Pope Benedict recalled that he was enrolled in the organization by school at the age of 14 along with all his classmates. With the beginning of the war the seminary was turned into a military hospital. The Ratzinger brothers returned to living at home with their parents and sister and stopped attending Hitler Youth meetings even though they would have been granted a reduction in their tuition if they attended meetings.
By 1943 a new home had been found for the former students of the Traunstein seminary. The entire class was moved to military barracks in Munich where they continued their courses and lived like soldiers. In 1944 the class was released, free to return home. Pope Benedict, has just arrived home when he was drafted into the work service of the Reich. He was stationed in the Austrian Burgenland but after a few months was unexpectedly sent home. He was soon assigned to the barracks in Traunstein where he went through basic training. His unit never saw combat, instead they spent their time marching through the city singing war songs. In April 1945 there was a real chance that he would be called to the frontline. At that point he deserted the army and went home.
When American forces set up headquarters in the Ratzinger house in Traunstein and realized Pope Benedict was a former solider, he was forced to put on his uniform once again and surrender to the Allies. He spent several months in a U.S. prisoner-of-war camp in Bad Aibling before being released and returned to Traunstein.
The Ratzinger brothers returned to the major seminary in Freising in 1946 to continue their priestly formation. In 1951 both brothers were ordained to the priesthood in Freising and celebrated their first masses in Traunstein on the same day.
The younger Ratzinger was posted to a parish in Munich where he would serve as assistant. After only a year he was called to the seminary in Freising to serve as instructor and confessor. It was the beginning of his academic career.
He studied at the University of Munich where he received a doctorate and licentiate in theology. He went on to teach dogmatic and fundamental theology at the University of Freising, and lectured and the University of Bonn, Muenster, and Tubingen. In 1969 he held the chair of dogmatics and history of dogma and served as vice-president of the University of Regensburg.
His family was an important part of his vocation and ministry. By the time he was appointed professor in Freising his parents were aging ready for a different pace. He moved them into his home Freising. When he was called to teach at the University of Bonn his sister Maria went with him to keep house while his parents moved back to Traunstein where Georg Ratzinger was posted. After their parents’ deaths Maria would stay at her younger brother’s side, moving with him to Muenster, Tubingen, Regensburg, Munich and eventually Rome. The three siblings made every effort to spend holidays together, despite the distances.
Pope Benedict attended the Second Vatican Council as a young priest and theological consultant to Cardinal Joseph Frings, the Archbishop of Cologne. He was said to have played a key role discussions among German-speaking participants, and gained a reputation as a progressive theologian. The experience also led to him to important roles with the German Bishops’ Conference and the International Theological Comission.
In 1972, along with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac he started the theological journal “Communio”. In 2012 there were 14 editions of Communio published in Europe, Latin America and the United States.
Pope Benedict was appointed Bishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. He was the first diocesan priest in 80 to be appointed head of that diocese. He chose the phrase “cooperators of truth” as his Episcopal motto, explaining the choice saying "On the one hand I saw it as the relation between my previous task as professor and my new mission. In spite of different approaches, what was involved, and continued to be so, was following the truth and being at its service. On the other hand I chose that motto because in today’s world the theme of truth is omitted almost entirely, as something too great for man, and yet everything collapses if truth is missing". That same year he was elevated to the College of Cardinals.
In 1981 Pope John Paul II appointed him prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith. He also served as president of the preparatory commission for the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in 1992 presented the finished work to the Holy Father.
He as appointed Vice-Dean of the College of Cardinals in 1998 and in 2002 was made Dean. That meant he would play a key role in the 2005 preparations for the funeral of John Paul II and the resulting conclave.
In 1997, while still head of the congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, he reportedly asked John Paul II to appoint him Cardinal Librarian of the Vatican Library, but his request was denied. He continued on as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation and served as a consultor to various other Vatican councils and congregations, including the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, for Bishops, for the Evangelization of Peoples, for the Causes of Saints, and Pontifical Councils for Promoting Christian Unity, for Culture, and the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura as well as the Commission for the correct interpretation of the Code of Canon Law, and “Ecclessia Dei.”
Pope Benedict is a prolific writer, and although he is 85, readers are eagerly awaiting the third installment of the “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy on the life of Jesus and his September 2012 visit to Lebanon.
Seven years of Benedict XVI
Elected pope at the age of 78 are 25 years leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of faith, he has carried the role of defender of the faith into his papacy, tightening up norms related to priests who sexually abuse minors, appointing apostolic visitators to communities with irregularities, and trying to bring schismatic groups back into communion with the church and all her teachings.
In the first seven years of his papacy he has had to deal with the aftermath of the clerical sex abuse scandal in the U.S. and the revelation of a widespread cover up of abuse cases in Ireland and parts of Europe. While critics claimed Vatican reaction was slow and lenient, it was under Pope Benedict’s reign that Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, was investigated and sentenced to the life of prayer and penitence and the Legionaries were investigated.
A landmark letter to the faithful of Ireland was released in 2010 after widespread cover up of abuse cases was discovered. At the same time rules were changed to include the possession of child pornography as a grave violation of cannon law.
His papacy hasn’t been devoid of controversy, yet he has managed to use those controversies to build bridges in unexpected places. In a 2006 address at the University of Regensburg he quoted a Byzantine scholar who linked Islam with violence. Many muslim leaders were offended and outraged.
In response to the speech 138 Muslim scholars wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict, outlining their concerns with the content of the Regensburg speech. The open letter from the Muslim scholars led to the creation of the International Catholic Muslim forum in 2008. In 2009 Prince Ghazi of Jordan publicly thanked the pope for his apologies and for receiving the open letter positively.
Pope Benedict’s German nationality raised concerns among some Jewish groups, but he reached out making visits to the Synagogue of Cologne, Germany in 2006, Park Lane Synagogue in New York in 2008, the Rome Synagogue in 2010. During his 2009 pilgrimage to the Holy Land he went to the Western Wall to pray at one of the Judaism’s holiness sites.
Known for his hard line on doctrinal matters, he has also gained a reputation as a “green” pope, drawing attention to environmental issues and calling for greater stewardship of the Earth. In 2007 Vatican City went green, installing solar panels on the Paul VI audience hall, allowing it to generate its own electricity.
Since taking over in 2005 Pope Benedict has repeatedly called for a paradigm shift in the world’s economic system, focusing the real needs of youth and families instead of just profits. His 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate called for a development that takes into consideration the whole person.
While some wonder how long he can continue to meet the demands of his papal duties, during his recent visit to Cuba he joked with Fidel Castro, “I may be old, but I can still carry out my duties.” Leading the Regina Caeli this Sunday at St. Peter’s he asked the faithful to pray that he might have the strength to carry out his mission.
To celebrate his birthday, his 88 year old brother Georg, who was ordained on the same day as Pope Benedict, traveled to Rome so they could spend the week together. A delegation from Bavaria also made the trip, putting on a special performance of traditional Bavarian music and dance and bearing gifts of dark bread, and traditional German cakes. Referring to the music, Pope Benedict said, “this is the sound of my youth.”