Dear Fellow Parishioners,
By the time this appears in the bulletin, the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will have taken place. After nearly 10 years as Pope Emeritus, he left the public life of the Church as quietly as he entered it.
To place Benedict XVI’s life in better perspective, it might be useful to focus on some aspects of his
person, life and ministry not widely commented upon. In addition to his native German, he had proficiency in
English, French, Italian and Spanish. He also knew Portuguese, Latin, Biblical Hebrew, and Biblical Greek.
He was born in Marktl, Bavaria, at the far southeastern end of modern-day Germany, very close to
Austria and relatively close to the Czech Republic. Bavaria has traditionally been predominantly Catholic and
independent-minded, and Bavarians historically thought of themselves first as Bavarians, and only second as
Germans. It was in Bavaria that the Nazi regime was least popular and most suspect.
Joseph Ratzinger’s father, Joseph Sr., was a police officer who bitterly opposed the Nazi regime,
which cost professional demotions and harassment of the family. The family became even more bitterly op-
posed when, in 1941, one of the future pope’s cousins who had Down’s Syndrome, was forcibly euthanized as
part of a Nazi eugenics campaign. In 1941, the future pope was forcibly enrolled in the Hitler Youth, though
he refused to participate or attend meetings. In 1943, he was drafted into the German infantry. (Pope Benedict
XVI and Queen Elizabeth II were the last heads of state to have served actively in World War II.) In 1945, As
Allied troops drew closer to his post, he deserted and returned to his family. He was held by the Allies as a
prisoner of war for a few months, then released.
After the war, Ratzinger returned to the seminary to resume his priestly studies and was ordained a
priest by Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Munich. The young priest attributed his vocation to the Cardinal,
whom he met when he was five years old. Twenty-six years later, in 1977, Fr. Ratzinger, who had spent his
life as a professor and academic, was named Archbishop of Munich and then a cardinal in less than a month’s
In his early years as a university professor, he had a distinctly reformist bent. As a priest-theologian,
Fr. Ratzinger had significant influence on the content and especially the interpretation of Vatican II. In time,
he grew concerned with increasing student unrest and the extent to which it seemed related to departure from
traditional church teaching and decline in respect for authority.
Three years after Pope John Paul II was elected, he appointed Cardinal Ratzinger as Prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office charged with the teaching and defense of the Catholic
Faith. He held this post, perhaps second only to the papacy in importance, for 24 years. It was as Prefect that
he oversaw the creation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, whose best-seller status confirmed that it
spoke to a felt need among the faithful. After asking three times for permission to retire, Cardinal Ratzinger
was elected pope in 2005.
All of the foregoing covers time before Benedict XVI was elected, making the point that he was al-
ready an enormously influential figure even if he had never become pope.
Next week: The Years as Pope
Fr. Bill Donahue