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Who is Joseph Ratzinger ?

Written by Alain Pilote on Friday, 01 April 2005. Posted in Pope Benedict XVI

A biography of the new Pope

Joseph Ratzinger was born in Marktl am Inn (on the Inn River), Germany, on April 16, 1927, Holy Saturday, and was the first person baptized in the Easter Water blessed at the Easter Vigil. His father, Joseph, a policeman, from a family of farmers in Lower Baveria, was frequently transferred. (He died in 1959, at the age of 59.) His mother, Maria, was the daughter of a craftsman of Rimsting. (She died on December 16, 1963, at the age of 79.) He has one brother, Georg, who is five years older than him (but who will be ordained a priest on the same day as him (June 29, 1951), and a sister, Maria (who never married, and will look after Joseph in the Vatican. Joseph had an apartment a bit outside, and Maria was like his housekeeper. She died on November 2, 1991 at the age of 69).

In 1929, young Joseph's family moved to Tittmoning, a small town on the Salzach River, on the Austrian border. In 1932 his father's outspoken criticism of the Nazis required the family to relocate to Auschau am Inn, at the foot of the Alps. His father retired in 1937, and his family moved to Hufschlag, outside of Traunstein. There Joseph began studying classical languages at the local gymnasium or high school. In 1939, he entered the minor seminary in Traunstein, his first step toward the priesthood.

World War II forced a postponement of his studies, until 1945, when he re-entered the seminary with his brother Georg. At the time, membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory for young men. And so, against his wishes, Joseph was enrolled. By all counts, he was a very unenthusiastic member - indeed, his family had been outspoken in their opposition to Nazism, to the point where they actually had to move to a different town out of safety concerns. When Joseph turned 16, he was drafted into the German army to serve with an anti-aircraft unit. He never saw combat and subsequently deserted (an action that would have meant summary execution had he been caught).

Like John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger was marked by the terror-filled years of World War II. Karol Wojtyla was forced to work in a quarry, and narrowly escaped arrest in a mass roundup of young men by the Germans in Krakow; Ratzinger's experiences were also harrowing. In particular, his decision to leave his army unit just after he turned military age could have cost Ratzinger his life.

At the time, he knew that the dreaded SS units would shoot a deserter on the spot or hang him from a lamppost as a warning to others. He recalled his terror when he was stopped by other soldiers.

"Thank God they were ones who had had enough of war and did not want to become murderers," he wrote in his book, "Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977." "They had to find a reason to let me go. I had my arm in a sling because of an injury." "Comrade, you are wounded," they told him. "Go on."

This was in the end of April, 1945. When the Americans finally arrive at his village, they choose to establish their headquarters in the Ratzinger house. Joseph is identified as a German soldier and incarcerated in a POW camp. He is released on June 19 and returns home to Traunstein, followed by his brother Georg in July. In November, Joseph and his brother Georg re-enter the seminary.

In 1947, he entered the Herzogliches Georgianum, a theological institute associated with the University of Munich. Finally, on June 29, 1951, both Joseph and his brother Georg were ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Faulhaber, in the Cathedral at Freising, on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.

Continuing his theological studies at the University of Munich, he received his doctorate in theology in July 1953, with a thesis entitled "The People and House of God in Augustine's doctrine of the Church." He fulfilled a requirement for teaching at the university level by completing a book-length treatise on Bonaventure's theology of history and revelation.

On April 15, 1959, he began lectures as a full professor of fundamental theology at the University of Bonn. From 1962-1965, he was present during all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council as a peritus, or chief theological advisor, to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, Germany. It is at this Council that Ratzinger and the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, became friends, a friendship that would last for the rest of their lives.

He launched his first darts against the Holy Office, "out of step with the times and a cause of harm and scandal," which he would direct many years later. But very soon after the end of the Council, he began to denounce its effects, which were "crudely divergent" from what was to be expected. In a book published in 1985 called "The Ratzinger Report", in which he is interviewed by Italian journalist Vittorio Montessori, Cardinal Ratzinger said that many liturgical treasures had been "squandered away." "One shudders at the lackluster face of the postconciliar liturgy as it has become, or one is simply bored with its hankering after banality and its lack of artistic standards." It would be easy to show, he said, how "the surrender of the beautiful" has resulted in a "pastoral defeat."

Although Ratzinger saw great merit in bringing vernacular to the liturgy and instituting the Novus Ordo Mass, he lamented about the way Latin had been stripped from religion when the Council, he said, clearly pointed out that "the use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites" and that "care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them."

"The liturgy is not a show, a spectacle, requiring brilliant producers and talented actors," said Cardinal Ratzinger. "The life of the liturgy does not consist in'pleasant'surprises and attractive'ideas'but in solemn repetitions."

The path Joseph Ratzinger took was parallel to that of two other first-rate theologians of the time, his friends and instructors Henri De Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, both of whom also became Cardinals, both of whom were also accused of having turned aside from progressivism to conservatism. Ratzinger never paid any attention to the label that was applied to him: "I have not changed; they are the ones who have changed."

In 1963, he began teaching at the University of Münster, taking, in 1966, a second chair in dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen. His appointment is vigorously supported and secured by fellow professor Hans Küng. Ratzinger had initially met Küng in 1957 at a congress of dogmatic theologians in Innsbruck. In his Memoirs, Ratzinger wrote about this meeting: "A good personal relationship was thus established, even if soon after... a rather serious argument began between us about the theology of the Council." (In the 1980s, Küng will be condemned by Cardinal Ratzinger for denying the dogma of the infallibility of the Pope.)

A wave of student uprisings sweeps across Europe, and Marxism quickly becomes the dominant intellectual system at Tübingen, indoctrinating not only his students but many of the faculty as well. Having no sympathy with the new radical theology, Ratzinger decided in 1969 to move back to Bavaria and take a teaching position at the University of Regensburg. There, he eventually became dean and vice president. He was also a member of the International Theological Commission of the Holy See from 1969 until 1980.

In his book "Salt of the Earth", Ratzinger wrote about the subordination of religion to Marxist political ideology at Tübingen: "There was an instrumentalization by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal, and cruel. That experience made it clear to me that the abuse of faith had to be resisted precisely if one wanted to uphold the will of the Council."

In 1972, together with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henry De Lubac and others, he launched the Catholic theological journal Communio, a quarterly review of Catholic theology and culture. It has been said that this was done in response to the misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council by Karl Rahner, Hans Kung and others, as represented by the theological journal Concilium.

On March 24, 1977, Father Ratzinger was elected Archbishop of Munich and Freising by Pope Paul VI. He was ordained to the Episcopal Order on May 28, 1977, by Cardinal Bengsch of Berlin (see picture above) taking as his motto a phrase from 3 John 8, "Cooperatores Veritatis, co-workers of the Truth." In his Memoirs, he explains the choice of this motto: "For one, it seemed to be the connection between my previous task as teacher and my new mission. Despite all the differences in modality, what is involved was and remains the same: to follow truth, to be at its service. And because in today's world the theme of truth has all but disappeared, because truth appears too great for man, and yet everything falls apart if there is no truth."

The Pope's coat of arms

With a motto, a new Bishop must also choose a coat of arms. At the end of his autobiography, published in 1978, Cardinal Ratzinger explains the meaning of his coat of arms, now that of Pope Benedict XVI:

For a thousand years the arms of the Munich Archbishops have displayed a Moor (or black Ethiopian), wearing a crown. No one knows how he got there. Ratzinger regards him as a symbol of the Church's universality, which knows no distinctions of race or class, since "all are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

Ratzinger added two personal symbols. The first is a scallop shell, the pilgrim's emblem (still given to pilgrims at Compostela), a reminder that "we have here no lasting city" (Heb. 13:14). The shell also reminds Ratzinger of his theological mentor and the subject of his doctoral dissertation, St. Augustine.

Walking along the seashore as he reflected on the mystery of the Trinity, Augustine came across a child who had dug a hole in the sand and was trying to pour the sea into it with a shell. Augustine realized that his efforts to understand the mystery of God were as futile as the child's attempt to get the sea into the hole. "The shell reminds me of my great master Augustine, of my theological work, and of the vastness of the mystery which surpasses all our learning."

The second symbol, a bear with a pack on his back, is connected with a legend about Munich's first bishop, St. Korbinian. Traveling to Rome, Korbinian encountered a bear which attacked the horse which was carrying the saint's luggage. As punishment, Korbinian made the bear carry his pack to Rome before releasing him.

"Isn't Korbinian's bear, compelled against his will to carry the saint's pack, a picture of my own life?'I am no better than a beast in your sight' (Psalm 72) – but a beast close to God. What more can I say about my bishop's years? The legend says that Korbinian set the bear free once he reached Rome. It doesn't tell us whether the animal went to the Abruzzi Mountains or returned to the Alps. Meanwhile, I have carried my pack to Rome and wander for some time now through the streets of the Eternal City. When release will come I cannot know. What I do know is that I am God's pack animal, and as such close to him."

The new Pope's reflections eight years ago take on special poignancy when we know that some years ago he asked Pope John Paul Il to release him from his duties in Rome to return to Germany and his first love, theological study and teaching. John Paul asked Ratzinger to stay on. "We're both getting old, Joseph," he told him. "We must continue to work together." Now the Cardinals have told Joseph Ratzinger that he must carry his pack to the end.

On June 27, 1977, Joseph Ratzinger was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI. In 1980, he was named by Pope John Paul Il to chair the special Synod on the Laity. Shortly after that, the Pope asked him to head the Congregation for Catholic Education. Cardinal Ratzinger declined, feeling he shouldn't leave his post in Munich too soon. On November 25, 1981, he did become, however, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, becoming at the same time ex officio the President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and the International Theological Commission. On February 15, 1982, he resigned the Munich Archdiocese. In his Memoirs, Ratzinger wrote the following about this nomination in Rome:

"For me (becoming Perfect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) the cost was that I couldn't do full time what I had envisaged for myself, namely really contributing my thinking and speaking to the great intellectual conversation of our time, by developing an opus of my own. I had to descend to the little and various things pertaining to factual conflicts and events. I had to leave aside a great part of what would interest me, and simply serve, and to accept that as my task. And I had to free myself from the idea that I absolutely have to write or read this or that; I had to acknowledge that my task is here."

Every head of a Vatican Congregation is appointed by the Pope for a 5-year term, which can be renewed. John Paul II renewed Ratzinger's term five times, despite the Cardinal's wishes to retire in Germany. When he was elected Pope, Ratzinger said, smiling, that it was John Paul II again who was asking him to stay in Rome, and that this time again, he could not say no to the late Pope...

In 1986, John Paul Il appointed Cardinal Ratzinger President of the Commission for the Preparation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was issued 6 years later. Ratzinger also closely worked with the Holy Father in writing the Encyclical Letters Veritatis Splendor (in 1993) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, in 1995).

On November 30, 2002, John Paul Il approved his election as Dean of the College of Cardinals. It was in his capacity as Dean of the College that Cardinal Ratzinger presided over the funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II on April 8, and the College's deliberations during the vacancy of the Holy See, followed by the opening of the Conclave, on April 18, for the election of the future Pope.

Many Cardinals say that it was his homily at the Pope's funeral, and the way he handled the following days, that convinced them he would be the best candidate to become the next Pope. Everybody knew he was John Paul II's closest friend in the Curia, the most brilliant of all Cardinals, and certainly one of the holiest. Even before the funeral, no one would have given any chance to Ratzinger for becoming Pope, having in mind what the secular news media said about him: "He is too old, too conservative, too controversial (disliked by the liberals)," etc.

But the miracle happened: Within 24 hours after the beginning of the Conclave, on the fourth ballot, Joseph Ratzinger got way over the 77 votes necessary out the of 115 Cardinal electors (a two-third majority) to become the next Sovereign Pontiff. (According to Time Magazine, by the fourth vote, Ratzinger had won 95 out of the 115 votes.) As Eggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal wrote: "It was impossible. But it happened. No one was really considering Cardinal Ratzinger until that (funeral) Mass. Those who are pursuing John Paul II's canonization, please note: his first miracle is Benedict XVI."

Cardinal Meisner of Cologne said: "I have known the Pope (Ratzinger) for 35 years (he has the intelligence of 12 professors and is as pious as a child on the day of his First Communion) and we are friends. When I saw that at 78, an age when others are retired, he was to take charge of such a great mission, and he did so with such delight and intelligence, I was inwardly overwhelmed, and the tears flowed."

So on Tuesday, April 19, there was white smoke at 5:50 p.m. (Rome time) out of the chimney on top of the Sistine, showing the election of a new Pope. A few minutes later, Cardinal Medina Estévez, protodeacon of the College of Cardinals, appeared at the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica, and announced in Latin:

"Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Josephum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Ratzinger qui sibi nomen imposuit Benedicti Decimi Sexti."

Which translates to: "Dear brothers and sisters, I announce to you a great joy: We have a Pope! The most Eminent and Reverend Lord, the Lord Joseph Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Ratzinger, who has taken to himself the name of Benedict the Sixteenth."

Then the 264th Successor of St. Peter — the first German Pope in a thousand years, and oldest Pope in more than 200 years (John XXIII was elected Pope at the age of 76) - appeared at the balcony, and addressed his first message to the faithful (see page 1). Calling himself "a humble worker in God's vineyard", Joseph Ratzinger had certainly not sought that job, knowing that it is, humanly speaking, above all that a human being can bear. Speaking to German pilgrims gathered in Rome on April 25, Benedict XVI said:

"When, little by little, the trend of the voting led me to understand that, to say it simply, the axe was going to fall on me, my head began to spin. I was convinced that I had already carried out my life's work and could look forward to ending my days peacefully. With profound conviction, I said to the Lord: Do not do this to me! You have younger and better people at your disposal, who can face this great responsibility with greater dynamism and greater strength.

"I was then very touched by a brief note written to me by a brother Cardinal. He reminded me that on the occasion of the Mass for John Paul II, I had based my homily, starting from the Gospel, on the Lord's words to Peter by the Lake of Gennesareth: 'Follow Me!'. I spoke of how, again and again, Karol Wojtyla received this call from the Lord, and how each time he had to renounce much and to simply say: Yes, I will follow You, even if You lead me where I never wanted to go.

"This brother Cardinal wrote to me: Were the Lord to say to you now, 'Follow Me', then remember what you preached. Do not refuse! Be obedient in the same way that you described the great Pope, who has returned to the house of the Father. This deeply moved me. The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness. Thus, in the end I had to say 'yes'. I trust in the Lord and I trust in you, dear friends."

It was Cardinal Ratzinger who had been chosen by John Paul Il to write the meditations and prayers for the Way of the Cross of Holy Friday, March 25, 2005. Here is what he wrote as meditation and prayer for the ninth Station of the Cross, Jesus falling for the third time:

"What can the third fall of Jesus under the Cross say to us? We have considered the fall of man in general, and the falling of many Christians away from Christ and into a godless secularism. Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in His own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of His Presence abused, how often must He enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that He is there! How often is His Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Him! How much pride, how much self-complacency! What little respect we pay to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where He waits for us, ready to raise us up whenever we fall! All this is present in His Passion. His betrayal by His disciples, their unworthy reception of His Body and Blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces His heart. We can only call to Him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison – Lord, save us (cf. Mt 8: 25).

Two days later, near the Vatican, Cardinal Ratzinger met on the street a retired curial monsignor who asked him the reason for giving what seemed a discouraging reflection. "We must pray much, we must pray much," answered the future Benedict XVI. "You weren't born yesterday; you understand what I'm talking about; you know what it means - We priests! We priests!" he concluded in a tone of pleading, adding, "Remember the prayer to the Sacred Heart, in which we ask particular pardon for the sins of priests. I know it hurts to say the boat's taking in water from every side, but it's true, it's true. We priests..." Struck by the manner in which Ratzinger said, "we priests, we priests," the monsignor recognized his inner suffering, and asked him nothing further. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger was indeed well aware of the present state of the Church.

On the opening of the Conclave, he delivered a homily in which he did not pull any punches to remind the Cardinal electors about the seriousness of the times, which brought commentators to say that Ratzinger had certainly no intention of becoming Pope:

"How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.

"Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be'tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine', seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive, and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."

Pope Benedict XVI will safely lead the ship of the Church through the storms, and lead the faithful to Christ. Let us obey him and support him with our prayers! 

About the Author

Alain Pilote

Alain Pilote

Alain Pilote has been the editor of the English edition of MICHAEL for several years. Twice a year we organize a week of study of the social doctrine of the Church and its application and Mr. Pilote is the instructor during these sessions.


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