From Hitlers soldier to Pope, life of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has died at the age of 95. He was the 265th head of the Roman Catholic Church. Benedict resigned as Bishop of Rome in February 2013, citing a "lack of mental and physical vigour" due to his old age.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The 265th head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, died at the age of 95.

Benedict resigned as Bishop of Rome in February 2013, citing a “lack of mental and physical vigour” due to his late age and inability to discharge his duties. He ruled for eight years before being superseded by the current pontiff, Pope Francis I.

Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was born in the Bavarian village of Marktl in southeastern Germany on April 16, 1927. He was the youngest of three children born to police officer Joseph Ratzinger Sr. and Maria Ratzinger. Upon observing the regalia of the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich on a visit to his little village, Benedict realised at the age of five that he wanted to become a cardinal.

As a result of his resistance to fascist authority, Benedict’s father was demoted following the Nazi seizure of power, but when Benedict reached 14 in 1941, he was compelled to join the Hitler Youth. He was identified as a “lackadaisical member.” Two years later, he was enlisted into an anti-air artillery unit, trained as an infantryman, and left his post as American forces approached in 1945. Benedict was briefly interned in a prisoner of war camp till the end of the war when he was released.

Benedict and his older brother George enrolled in Saint Michael Seminary in Traunstein and the Ducal Georgianum seminary at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in the same year. Both men were ordained by Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber in the year 1951. This was the same cardinal whose robes had motivated him to join the priesthood when he was a little child.

He earned his PhD in 1953 with a dissertation on Saint Augustine and the Church and became a university professor four years later. Benedict alternatively taught theology at Freising, Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensberg.

From 1962 to 1965, Benedict participated in the Second Vatican Council, a massive ecumenical gathering that rewrote much of Catholic theology in response to the concerns of the 20th century. This included celebrating Mass in the local language rather than Latin and, in the wake of the Holocaust, removing liturgical references to Jews as Christ’s murderers. He served as the cardinal of Cologne’s theological advisor. Benedict became a particularly ardent advocate for the notion of “ecumenical conversation” between the Catholic Church and other religions and respect for other religions.

Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Square, Rome (2007). Image: Marek Kośniowski, Wikimedia
Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square, Rome (2007). Image: Marek Kośniowski, Wikimedia

Benedict was anointed a bishop in 1977 when Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Munich and Freising and Cardinal Priest of Santa Maria Consolata al Tiburtino.

After another three years, he was promoted to the position of Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was formerly known as the Roman Inquisition, and he began his rise through the ladder of the College of Cardinals.

An asteroid was given the name 8661 Ratzinger in his honour in 1998. This was done to recognise his role in directing the opening of the Vatican Archives to researchers who were investigating judicial errors against Galileo Galilei and other scientists from the 17th century.

When Pope John Paul II passed away in April 2005, a new conclave was convened, and Benedict was elected as the next Supreme Pontiff.

At 78, he was the oldest person elected to the position since 1730. He was the second straight non-Italian Pope since the scandal known as the Avignon Papacy in the 14th century when the Papacy temporarily migrated to France. His predecessor, also named Benedict, had served in the early 20th century; therefore, he took the name Benedict XVI.

During the conclave, held in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict was nearly widely viewed as the most plausible successor to John Paul II, but ironically, he did not want to be Pope.

Although Benedict was viewed as a reformer due to his embrace of Vatican II, implementation of measures intended to bring him closer to the masses, and de-emphasis of the Papal office, he was also a rival of liberal movements and blamed “moral relativism” and secularism for the major problems of the 21st century. To prevent a rift within the Church, he also approved the continued use of the Tridentine Mass, the pre-1962 Latin text modified and translated at Vatican II.

During his term as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict persuaded John Paul II to place sexual abuse investigations under the jurisdiction of the CDF, and he vigorously pursued investigations against accused clergy. In addition, he pioneered various modifications to canon law, including widening the scope of criminal offences and instituting a swift dismissal procedure for clergy. As Pope Benedict continued this initiative but was criticised for several high-profile abuse cases that did not result in removal, as well as the embarrassing revelation that he had overlooked abuse charges against clergy during his time as Archbishop of Munich and Freising.

Benedict’s declaration in February 2013 that he would resign as pontiff due to health concerns was unexpected but perhaps not entirely unexpected. After a hemorrhagic stroke in 1991 and receiving a pacemaker in early 2005, he was initially hesitant to assume the position. He was the first Pope to abdicate since Gregory XII in 1415 and the first Pope to do so freely since Celestine V in 1294. 

Benedict took the title “Pope Emeritus” upon his retirement and continued to be addressed as His Holiness. In the Vatican Gardens, he moved inside the refurbished Mater Ecclesiae Monastery. He continued to write and speak, including multiple appearances alongside his successor, Pope Francis I. He did not, however, lead a cloistered existence. It was known that he suffered from high blood pressure, but the Vatican refused to provide any information. However, it was later disclosed that he had an inflammation of the trigeminal nerve, the facial nerve responsible for facial feelings and the use of the jawbone.

As a constituent of the Catholic clergy, Benedict has never married and is not known to have any children. His brother Georg Ratzinger and sister Maria have also passed away, in 2020 and 1991, and neither was married or had children.


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