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Benedict XVI: From POW to Pope

Pope Benedict XVI broke the seal on the papal apartment April 20, the day after he was elected, and moved in April 30. The Pope has been staying in another Vatican residence while the apartment was prepared for him. One news report said that workers had a challenge, getting the Pope's piano inside.

The Pope has come a long way since May, 1945, when he was Joseph Ratzinger, deserter from the German army and prisoner of American forces.

Josef and Maria Ratzinger's son was born on Holy Saturday, 1927 (April 16), in Marktl am Inn ("on the Inn River" ), Germany. Young Joseph was the first person baptized in that year's Easter Water, blessed at the Easter Vigil.

Joseph's father was a policeman, so the family moved quite a bit. In 1932 the future pope's father outspokenly anti-Nazi views forced the family to move to Auschau am Inn, at the foot of the Alps. When Josef retired in 1937, the family moved to Hufschlag, outside of Traunstein.

That's where Joseph began studying classical languages. In 1939, about age 12, took his first step toward being a priest: entering the minor seminary in Traunstein.

Then World War II happened.

When Joseph was 14, he got enrolled in the Hitler Youth. So did his brother, Georg. That was 1941, when enrollment in the Hitler Youth was required for all German boys. Not much later, Joseph was let out because he intended to become a priest.

Joseph was drafted again in 1943, along with many other teenagers, and put to work as a helper in an anti-aircraft brigade. Later, he was told to dig anti-tank trenches. Finally, he turned 18, was put through basic training and pushed into the army.

He got stationed near his home town. U.S. troops hadn't arrived yet, but were on their way. The Third Reich was crumbling. Joseph decided to leave. At that point, when prowling SS units were found a deserter, he was either shot or hung on a lamppost. Happily, Joseph met other soldiers.

"Thank God they were ones who had had enough of war and did not want to become murderers.," the future pope wrote later. "They had to find a reason to let me go. I had my arm in a sling because of an injury," he said in Aus meinem Leben, (published in English as Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977). "Comrade, you are wounded," the other soldiers told him, "Go on."

After he got home, the Americans came, and set up headquarters in his family's 18th-century farmhouse. The troops found out that Joseph had been a German soldier. That's when they made him get into uniform, raise his hands, and march over to join other German prisoners. "In three days of marching, we hiked down the empty highway," Joseph wrote years later. "The American soldiers photographed us, the young ones, most of all, in order to take home souvenirs of the devastated army and its desolate personnel."

Joseph spent several weeks outside, behind barbed wire, before being released.

Joseph and his brother George went back to the seminary and were ordained June 29, 1951, on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Fr. Ratzinger kept studying, earned a doctorate in theology at the University of Munich in 1953 and became a full professor of theology at Bonn.

When the Second Vatican Council started in the early 60s, Fr. Ratzinger was the Cardinal of Cologne's peritus, or chief theological advisor. Fr. Ratzinger attended all four sessions.

By 1972, imaginative folks like Karl Rahner, Hans Kung and others were writing about what they'd like the Second Vatican Council to have said in Concilium a theological journal. Fr. Ratzinger and others who knew what the Council actually said started a journal of their own, Communio.

Fr. Ratzinger became the archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. His motto, from 3 John 8, was "cooperators veritatis" ("fellow workers in the truth." or "collaborators of the truth"). Later that year he was elevated to Cardinal by Pope Paul VI.

From 1986 to 1992, Cardinal Ratzinger worked as President for the Preparation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. By 2002, he was Dean of the College of Cardinals.

That's the position he held when Pope John Paul II died, and the College of Cardinals elected a new pope.

The fourth time the Cardinals voted, on Tuesday, April 19, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became the Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church.

(Facts from Associated Press articles and EWTN (

Brian H. Gill, Editor, Sauk Centre K of C Bulletin

May 2005

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This page last updated December 19, 2010