ROME, April 19, 2005 ( – The mainstream North American and European media has never been friendly toward either the Catholic Church or to the man they hold up as the archetypal defender of Catholic conservatism. Joseph Ratzinger was the favourite target of dissident Catholics, liberal theologians, feminist ‘nuns,’ leftist media sources and anyone with a grudge against the Catholic Church. In his 24 years as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith “rigid archconservative” was the least of the insults heaped on the new Pope. In the weeks leading up to the conclave, with the odds-makers predicting an early Ratzinger win, media managed to sink to previously unimagined lows with laboured implications that he had been a Nazi, or at least a sympathizer with the Hitler Youth.

Even as the election was being announced, the reaction from ‘expert’ commentators manning television and radio stations ranged from reserved to near-hysterical wailing. His simple adherence to Catholic doctrine has been enough to elicit warnings of ‘division’ and even ‘coming civil war’ within the Catholic Church at his election. None of this is of any concern to the people of his hometown in Bavaria, however, where an Octoberfest-style celebration was put on by the town fathers.

Students at St. Michael’s seminary in Traunstein where the Pope studied as a teenager cheered him when he appeared on the balcony at the Vatican. In Traunstein the media-generated opinion is less important than the warmth of the man whom they know personally. Pope Benedict is a frequent visitor to this small Bavarian town and stays in the seminary with his brother, who is also a priest.

“Only someone who knows tradition is able to shape the future,” said the Rev. Thomas Frauenlob, who heads the seminary in Traunstein.

Pope Benedict’s personal generosity is well remembered at St. Michael’s. In 2003, the seminary was unable to have a bishop available for confirmations, one of Catholicism’s two initiation rites. Though, according to some US news magazines, he was at the time one of the most powerful and famous men in the world, the seminary knew they could count on their friend. He arrived in time to confirm 14 boys, then stayed to speak personally to each one after the ceremony.

Frauenlob said the insults and accusations pained him. “I find it hurtful to see him described as a hard-liner,” he said. “People are too quick to say that, it’s not an accurate reflection of his personality.”

When he stays with the students he loves to play the grand piano. The Pope told journalist Peter Seewald in 1996 that music was a large part of his life. Growing up near Salzburg, the home of Mozart, he said, “You might say that there Mozart thoroughly penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me deeply because it is so luminous and yet at the same time, so deep.”

Music runs in the family. His elder brother Georg is the former director of the renowned Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir. The Pope said of Mozart, “His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.”

Born on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday in the Catholic calendar, April 16, 1927, Joseph was brother to Georg and Maria and son of Maria and Joseph. His home was in a part of Germany known for its Catholicism and for what would now be called ‘social conservatism.’ Then-Cardinal Ratzinger said of his birth on the vigil of Easter, “on the threshold of Easter, but not yet through the door.”

After the rise of the Nazi’s, the senior Joseph Ratzinger, a police commissioner, risked much as a public opponent of Nazi ideology which was wholly opposed to his traditional Catholicism.

As a child, Joseph Ratzinger developed a desire to teach at an early age, though he was also once impressed with the work of a local housepainter. He loved to write including poetry, “about things of everyday life, Christmas poems, nature poetry…whenever I learned something I wanted to pass it on too.”

While attending the seminary, young Joseph avoided the Hitler Youth as long as possible. But later he was obliged when he reached an age at which membership became compulsory. Pope Benedict told Seewald that a sympathetic professor, himself a member of the party, arranged to have him exempted. It was difficult for him since his family was not wealthy and the government offered tuition assistance to members of the Hitler youth.

From 1943 all the seminarians were conscripted. Ratzinger did various jobs for the military until he came of age to be drafted at 18. He was stationed at first near the Austro-Hungarian border but an officer, whom he describes as “obviously anti-Nazi” arranged to send him to serve near his home. It was to Traunstein that the 18 year-old Joseph Ratzinger returned to his family in May 1945 risking death by deserting from the German army. He wrote in his memoirs that he was terrified of being caught by the SS who shot or hanged deserters on the spot.

When the war was over he spent a short time in a US POW camp after which he returned home, hitchhiking on the back of a milk truck. After the war he resumed his studies for the priesthood.

Joseph and his brother were ordained on the same day in 1951 in Freising where he spent several years as a lecturer in dogmatic and fundamental theology. In the 1960’s he became dismayed by the Marxist tone of much of the conversation at the Catholic universities in which he taught.

He attended the Second Vatican Council as a peritus, or theological advisor, to Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne. His dedication to traditional Catholicism was confirmed in 1966, when he took the chair of dogmatic theology at the University of Tubingen where he taught with Hans Kung.

In 1977 he was appointed the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich. He was appointed the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by John Paul II in 1981 which office he resigned on April 2, 2005, the day after Pope John Paul’s death.

Ratzinger has said he would like to retire to a Bavarian village and dedicate himself to writing books, but more recently, he told friends he was ready to “accept any charge God placed on him.”

This morning pro-life Catholics around the world were cheering when Pope Benedict XVI blessed the world. As Cardinal Ratzinger, his steadfast defence of Catholic ethics and moral doctrine has proved an incomparable boon to pro-life work around the world.Â

His brother Georg once said of the future Pope, “He is not aggressive at all, but when it’s necessary to fight, he does his part as a matter of conscience.”

Benedict replied via Seewald, “I try to be. I’m not bold enough to claim that I am. But it does seem to me very important not to put seeking approval or accommodating the feelings of the group above the truth.”

The text of his address was published in the French Catholic newspaper La Croix.


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