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Biography: Benedict XVI

Traunstein, Germany — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger alienated some Roman Catholics in Germany with his zeal enforcing church orthodoxy. But in the conservative Alpine foothills of Bavaria where he grew up, he remains a favourite son who many think will make a good pope.

Pope Benedict XVI, a rigorously conservative guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy who turned 78 on Saturday and was chosen the Catholic Church's 265th pontiff Tuesday, went into the Vatican conclave a leading candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II.

“Only someone who knows tradition is able to shape the future,” said Rev. Thomas Frauenlob, who heads the seminary in Traunstein where the new pope studied and regularly returns to visit.

But opinion about him remains deeply divided in Germany, a sharp contrast to John Paul, who was revered in his native Poland. A recent poll for Der Spiegel news weekly said Germans opposed to the cardinal becoming pope outnumbered supporters 36 per cent to 29 per cent, with 17 per cent having no preference.

Many blame the new Pope for decrees from Rome barring Catholic priests from counselling pregnant teens on their options and blocking German Catholics from sharing communion with their Lutheran brethren at a joint gathering in 2003.

Benedict XVI has clashed with prominent theologians at home, most notably the liberal Hans Kueng, who helped him get a teaching post at the University of Tuebingen in the 1960s. The cardinal later publicly criticized Mr. Kueng, whose licence to teach theology was revoked by the Vatican in 1979.

He has also sparred openly in articles with fellow German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a moderate who has urged less centralized church governance and is considered a dark horse papal candidate.

“He has hurt many people and far overstepped his boundaries in Germany,” said Christian Wiesner, spokesman for the pro-reform Wir Sind Kirche, or We Are Church movement.

The new Pope himself, in his autobiography, sensed he was out of step with his fellow Germans as early as the 1960s, when he was a young assistant at the Second Vatican Council in Rome.

Returning to Germany between sessions, “I found the mood in the church and among theologians to be agitated,” he wrote. “More and more there was the impression that nothing stood fast in the church, that everything was up for revision.”

Benedict XVI left Tuebingen during student protests in the late 1960s and moved to the more conservative University of Regensburg in his home state of Bavaria.

Catholics and Protestants each account for about 34 per cent of the German population, but Bavaria is one of the more heavily Catholic areas.

“What Wadowice was for John Paul, Bavaria is for Ratzinger,” said Father Frauenlob, referring to John Paul II's hometown in southern Poland. “He has very deep roots here, it's his home.”

Benedict XVI was born in Marktl Am Inn, but his father, a policeman, moved frequently and the family left when he was two.

He and his older brother, Georg — former director of the renowned Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir — return annually to the peaceful halls of St. Michael's Seminary to stay in the elegant, but sparsely furnished bishop's apartment next to the church.

An accomplished pianist who loves Mozart, the Benedict XVI enjoys playing the grand piano in the seminary's main hall, and walking through downtown Traunstein greeting people, Father Frauenlob said.

Traunstein was also where the new Pope went through the harrowing years of Nazi rule and the Second World War.

In his memoirs, the new Pope wrote that he was enrolled in the Nazi youth movement against his will when he was 14 in 1941, when membership was compulsory. He said he was soon let out because of his studies for the priesthood.

Two years later he was drafted into a Nazi anti-aircraft unit as a helper, a common task for teenage boys too young to be soldiers. A year later he was released, only to be sent to the Austrian-Hungarian border to construct tank barriers.

He deserted the Germany army in May, 1945, and returned to Traunstein — a risky move, since deserters were shot on the spot if caught, or publicly hanged as examples to others.

When he arrived home, U.S. soldiers took him prisoner and held him in a POW camp for several weeks. Upon his release, he re-entered the seminary.

Benedict XVI was ordained, along with his brother, in 1951. He then spent several years teaching theology. In 1977, he was appointed bishop of Munich and elevated to cardinal three months later by Pope Paul VI.

Pope John Paul II named him leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981, where he was responsible for enforcing Catholic orthodoxy and was one of the key men in the drive to shore up the faith of the world's Roman Catholics.

Benedict XVI speaks several languages, among them Italian and English, as well as his native language German.

Father Frauenlob calls him a subtle thinker with a deep understanding of Catholic tradition and a personal touch he's not often given credit for.

He cites the example of the seminary's 2003 confirmation service where no bishop was available. The cardinal swiftly agreed to come, confirming the 14 boys, then taking time to speak personally to each one after the ceremony.

“I find it hurtful to see him described as a hard-liner,” Father Frauenlob said. “People are too quick to say that, it's not an accurate reflection of his personality.”

 

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