April 16, 2023 would have been Pope Benedict XVI’s 96th birthday. In honor of this, I would like to highlight some key moments in the life of this beloved pontiff, focusing mostly on his lesser known early years.
In 1927, April 16 was Holy Saturday. Back in those days, the Easter Vigil was celebrated in the morning. Providentially, this enabled Joseph Ratzinger to be baptized almost immediately after his birth with the freshly blessed water. Later in life, he considered this to be significant. On the one hand, his life began with immersion into the mystery of Easter. On the other hand, “it was not Easter Sunday but Holy Saturday, but, the more I reflect on it, the more this seems to be fitting for the nature of our human life: we are still awaiting Easter; we are not yet standing in the full light but walking toward it full of trust” (Milestones, 8).
The future pope was the youngest of three children born to devout Catholic parents. His father was also named Joseph, and both his mother and sister were named Maria; his brother Georg was the eldest child. His father was a rural police officer in Bavaria, not far from the Austrian border.
The natural beauty of the area impressed the young Ratzinger. Being so close to creation helped him perceive the splendor of the Creator. “In this setting, almost impossibly picture-book as it is, the young Ratzinger became aware of a possible vocation to the priesthood while still a boy” (Aidan Nichols OP, The Thought of Benedict XVI, 5).
The piety of his family and of his fellow Bavarians instilled in the young Ratzinger a great devotion to the faith and to the liturgy. At the age of seven, he wrote a Christmas letter to the Child Jesus asking for his own missal for Mass and a green vestment so that he and his brother could play at being priests (see Peter Seewald, Benedict XVI: A Life, vol. 1, 31).
At the age of ten, Joseph was enrolled in a school that taught classical languages in their curriculum. He began “translating the Greek original of the Gospels into German, in order to take in the material in his own way” (Benedict XVI: A Life, vol. 1, 72). Likewise, around the age of fourteen, he translated liturgical texts from Latin into German “in an improved and more vital way” (Milestones, 29).
Unfortunately, the horrors of the Nazi regime also marked his youth. At the age of sixteen, he was forced into military service. He was tasked with making target calculations to protect a BMW plant from air raids. From there he was moved to other posts, but never as an infantryman, unlike his brother, who was injured in battle. The SS intimidated young men to ‘volunteer’ for their unit. “When it came to Joseph’s turn, he openly confessed that he wanted to become a Catholic priest. The SS man was known to spit with contempt on each wayside cross he passed and poured ‘ridicule and abuse’ on Joseph” (Seewald, Benedict XVI, vol. 1, 115). Ratzinger accepted this ridicule with joy, because it was better than the alternative and kept him from being conscripted into their evil service.
A couple weeks after Ratzinger’s eighteenth birthday, Hitler’s death was reported. Shortly thereafter, Joseph made a daring decision to abandon his post. Despite being spotted by two guards, he was allowed to continue unharmed and made his way home. Nevertheless, the danger—and the divine protection against it—continued. Two SS soldiers forcibly took residence in the Ratzinger home. “They could not fail to see that I was of military age,” writes Ratzinger, “and so they began to make inquiries about my status. It was a known fact that a number of soldiers who had left their units had already been hanged from trees by SS men. Besides, my father could not help voicing his ire against Hitler to their faces, which as a rule should have had deadly consequences for him. But a special angel seemed to be guarding us, and the two disappeared the next day without having caused any mischief” (Milestones, 36-37).
Surviving the atrocities of the Second World War only confirmed Ratzinger’s faith. As he has written:
The Church was the locus of all our hopes. Despite many human failings, the Church was the alternative to the destructive ideology of the [Nazi] rulers; in the inferno that had swallowed up the powerful, she had stood firm with a force coming to her from eternity. It had been demonstrated: The gates of hell will not overpower her. From our own experience we now knew what was meant by ‘the gates of hell,’ and we could also see with our own eyes that the house built on rock had stood firm.Milestones, 42.
Ratzinger’s priestly vocation also stood firm. After the war, he and his brother entered seminary together. It is poetic that the future bishop of Rome was ordained to the priesthood—alongside his brother—on June 29, 1951: the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the two great apostles upon whom Rome’s primacy is based (see The Pope Benedict XVI Reader, xiii).
After fourteen months of parish ministry, Joseph was sent back to finish his doctorate in theology, which he completed in 1953. In Germany, however, it is common to write a second dissertation-like work in order to get a further credential, the Habilitation, which is often required to hold an academic chair. Ratzinger’s original version was accepted by his director (Gottlieb Söhngen) but rejected by his reader (Michael Schmaus).
Despite not agreeing with Schmaus’ criticism, Ratzinger’s humility enabled him to see it as a valuable life lesson. As he remarked in an interview: “I believe that it is dangerous for a young person simply to go from achieving goal after goal, generally being praised along the way. So it is good for a young person to experience his limit, occasionally to be dealt with critically, to suffer his way through a period of negativity, to recognize his own limits himself. . . . Then he will not simply judge others hastily and stay aloof, but rather accept them positively in his labours and his weaknesses” (Benedict XVI and Seewald, Last Testament, 95). Fortunately, he revised the work and passed the milestone in 1957.
After teaching at universities in Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg, and after having been an expert theologian at Vatican II, he was appointed as the archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, was made a cardinal, and then named as the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981, where he served until he was elected pope on April 19, 2005.
As is well known, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by his resignation on February 11, 2013. Keep in mind, though, that he had thrice tried to resign from his position as prefect under John Paul II, who refused. He did not wish to become pope. He had long hoped to write books and to prepare prayerfully for death. Given his sentiments about his birth, I think he would have found it very appropriate that he died ‘on the last day’: December 31.