Joseph Ratzinger. The Life of a Pope before he was Pope

Essay, 2011

33 Pages


Table of Content


Youth of a Pope.Benedict’s Childhood and Upbringing in Bavaria

Brother, Priest and Professor. Benedict in Bavaria 1951 – 1959.

The Sixties. Pope Benedict’s Years as a Professor, 1959 – 1969

The Co-Worker of Truth. Benedict’s Years as Archbishop of Munich 1977 – 1981.

Ratzinger in Rome 1981 – 2005. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

A Decision Is Made


This little book was originally a series of speeches on the theologian Joseph Ratzinger and former pope Benedict XVI at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States. It is a warmhearted, friendly and accurate approach to the life of this important historical personality leading up to the year 2005, the election to the highest office of the Catholic Church. This approach does not claim to be a substitute for in depth studies of Ratzinger’s theology, neither does it offer a detailed biography of Benedict XVI from 1926 to the election year. The interested reader has numerous worthy and definitive works on both areas available, this above all by Joseph Ratzinger himself, who is not only a priest, but also an academic, a writer and an author of great scholarly works.

What this historical-biographical study can offer is a brief, understandable, but not superficial approach to life and theology of a great personality in our time and in the history of the Catholic Church. It is the wish of the author to introduce essential components of Ratzinger’s life and development to the general reader and also to young readers who would like to learn about the former pope Benedict XVI, who made the decision to resign from his office, but shy away from “heavy weight” books and in depth theological studies.

Youth of a Pope.Benedict’s Childhood and Upbringing in Bavaria

“Since happiness is nothing other than the enjoyment of the highest good and since the highest good is above, no one can be happy unless he rises above himself, not by the ascent of the body, but of the heart.”

Saint Bonaventure (1221 – 1274)

“I also want to be a cardinal one day”. The four-year old Joseph Ratzinger exclaims this sentence, when he sees for the first time the impressive Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich visiting the little town of Tittmoning in 1931. The times of Joseph’s childhood were hard in Germany with economical depression and political unrest leading up to the Nazi dictatorship. The region of Joseph’s childhood, however, was beautiful. Bavaria near the Austrian border offers an eye-pleasing landscape in the vicinity of the Alps rich with clear mountain rivers and dark green forests. Benedict remembers the region of his childhood as Mozartian.1

It is the Saturday before Easter Sunday, 8:30 in the morning on the 16th of April 1927, when Joseph Alois Ratzinger is born in the cozy Bavarian town of Marktl at the river Inn. He is the youngest of three children of a family of modest means. His sister Maria and his brother Georg are only a couple of years older. All three Ratzinger children will later devote their lives to the Catholic Church and will become astonishingly successful. The baby is baptized still on the same day with Easter water – the connection of his birth to Easter will have a special meaning to Joseph throughout his life. The house of his birth in Marktl am Inn, still stands today and is the center of a pilgrimage-like tourism to this Bavarian rural town nowadays.

The Ratzingers descend from a long line of Bavarian farmers of modest resources. His father left the farming tradition and became a policeman. His mother worked as a cook in Bavarian hotels before her marriage. The family moved many times due to his father’s profession within Bavaria when Joseph was a boy. Joseph’s first own memories are linked to the town of Tittmoning at the river Salzach, where he saw the visiting cardinal Faulhaber:

“The years in Tittmoning are a dreamlike time. There is the little town with the beautiful square, the churches, the fortress, the pilgrimage, the river Salzach and the hikes to Austria, and in addition to that many friendship with families of this town”.

Little Joseph visits the kindergarten connected to the Augustine monastery. Most Bavarian schools were confessional. Bavaria is a catholic region, while northern Germany is Lutheran. Germany was literally divided into two religions after the Thirty Years War in 1648. Beginning of the 20th century, more and more Bavarians were catholic by birth only. The Ratzingers, however, were a truly Christian family with deep roots in catholic tradition. Their faith will be tested during the antireligious reign of the Nazis from 1933 to 1945, Germany’s dark time, which spans from Joseph’s sixth to 18th birthday, most of his youth. Young Joseph experienced hostility, repression and violence against the Church. He saw how some Nazis beat the Parish Priest before the celebration of Mass.2

Benedict remembers that it was exactly the menace to his faith in Germany’s darkest times “that he discovered the beauty and truth of faith in Christ”.3

When Joseph was ten, the family settles in Hufschlag near Traunstein, only 22 miles from Salzburg. The parents bought an old farming house with a view on snowy mountain tops, a “paradise” for the three children. This will be Joseph’s home from 1937 to 1951. At that time it is already obvious to the family and the teachers that Joseph is academically highly gifted and inclined to priesthood. Despite financial hardship the parents send both of their gifted sons to the Gymnasium, the rigorous German prep school. In 1939, the year Hitler started the Second World War, Joseph changed to the prestigious prep school for future clergy St. Michael in Traunstein. The 12year-old studies Greek, Latin, Theology, Church History as well as Math, Natural Science and Social Studies, but times of war are hostile to the quiet pursuit of knowledge.

In 1941 the Nazis tried to weaken the position of the Catholic Church in the traditionally catholic states of the German Reich. A decree was issued to ban all crucifixes from schools and public life. Despite repression and propaganda, people did not let go of the crucifix. This was unprecedented during the Nazi dictatorship. The Nazi rulers fumed, but had to postpone the campaign against the Catholic Church until after the war. The ultimate plan was to abolish Christianity and replace it with a cult of nation, reverence for the leader and Germanic rites. In the meantime, the situation for clergy and Christians, both Catholic and Lutheran, became more and more dangerous. Anyone who opposed the Nazi ideology or helped Jews was thrown into a concentration camp. Father Rupert Mayer in Munich was one of the many who was imprisoned after a sermon, which was critical towards the inhumane regime. The Ratzingers were aware of all this, when they were pressured to let their sons join the statewide Hitler-Youth (HJ). Joseph was forced to be a member of this paramilitary program from 1941 on.

Two years later, when he was sixteen, he was enrolled in an auxiliary anti-aircraft corps and sent to Munich to help protect the town from heavy bombardment by the Royal Air Force and the USAAF. In 1944 the situation became so desperate that boys and old men were drafted to the fronts in East and West. The seventeen-year old Joseph was drafted to the RAD, an auxiliary work unit to the regular troops, and sent to the front in Hungary. When the Germans were defeated at all fronts and surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Forces in May 1945, the future pope was captured by American Forces and like hundred thousands of German soldiers put in one of the POW-camps in Bavaria. The American officers who interviewed the German prisoners of war, suggested the eighteen-year old aspiring priest for release already in June 1945.

As a man of the church Joseph wants to contribute to the rebuilding of his shattered homeland. He is admitted to the seminary in Freising at the archdiocese of Munich and Freising where he will serve as archbishop thirty years later. From 1946 to 1951 Joseph studied philosophy and theology in the Higher School of Philosophy and Theology of Freising and at the war-torn University of Munich. The pope remembers this time in his autobiography:

“Books were rare among the ruins of Germany. Despite the bomb damage the seminary in Freising had still some rudiments of a library, which offered food for my hungry mind”.

In 1950 he passes all his exams with distinction. On June 29, 1951, Joseph and his brother Georg received both their priestly ordination. The cardinal who ordained the Ratzinger brothers was none else than Michael of Faulhaber, the one Joseph had seen in Tittmoning when he was four years old.

Brother, Priest and Professor. Benedict in Bavaria 1951 – 1959.

“There is magic in each beginning.”

Herrmann Hesse, German writer.

Joseph Ratzinger and his brother Georg were both ordained in 1951 on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the founding apostles of Rome. Joseph was 24, Georg 27. There were forty new priests on this radiant summer day in June. Joseph Ratzinger remembers his ordination in his memoir “Milestones”:

“One should not be superstitious; but, at the moment when the elderly archbishop laid his hands on me, a little bird – perhaps a lark – flew up from the high altar and trilled a little joyful song. And I could not but see in this a reassurance from on high, as if I heard the words, ‘This is good, you are on the right way’.” 4

Many stations in the life of the Ratzinger brothers were parallel. They had lived through the dark times of Nazi dictatorship. They were drafted as soldiers at the end of the war and became POWs after the German capitulation. Already in their boyhood, they had decided to become priests. They studied together at the seminary in Freising while also attending philosophy and theology seminars at the war-torn university of Munich. After their ordination, the young priests were assigned to churches in Munich and worked in parishes. However, their outstanding intellectual inclination led them soon back to academic careers and both eventually became professors at the venerable university of the 2000-year old city of Regensburg.

When Joseph was elected pope on April 19, 2005, his brother Father Georg Ratzinger back in Germany was concerned. “I’m not very happy,” Georg told a press agency. “He’s okay, and his health is good. I just wish for him that his health holds out and that his office isn’t a worry and a nuisance to him.”5 If this does not sound as upbeat as one would expect, it reveals the Bavarian characteristic of not showing too much cheer and boasting if an honor comes to you or your family. Understatement and a down to earth attitude is a common trait among Bavarian people. There might also have been a trace of genuine disappointment in Father Georg’s reaction. When Pope John Paul II called Cardinal Ratzinger from Munich to Rome in 1981 as his Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith it was not an easy farewell of the Bavarian to his homeland. Georg knew that his brother was looking forward to coming back in his old age.

Becoming Pope, however, means next to many other and much more important aspects, living in Italy for the rest of one’s life. Just before Joseph’s election the 79- and 82-year old brothers were looking forward to a common retirement in Bavaria.

“My heart is Bavarian” – these words of Benedict XVI show the present Pope’s deep attachment to his native region. Whoever wants to understand Joseph Ratzinger is well advised to look into his Bavarian upbringing and background. Marktl, Tittmoning, Traunstein, Munich and Regensburg are the stations of his Bavarian upbringing and his early career. All of these places make a beautiful travel guide for a stay in Bavaria. The “Benedict-Travels” are a popular tourist destination, consisting of a tour of mountainous Southern Germany, where Benedict spent his youth.


1 Biography of Benedict XVI on

2 Biography of Benedict XVI on

3 Biography of Benedict XVI on

4 Quote in: David Gibson, The Rule of Benedict. Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World, HarperSanFrancisco 2006, Page 160.

5 David Gibson, The Rule of Benedict. Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World, HarperSanFrancisco 2006, Page 9.

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Joseph Ratzinger. The Life of a Pope before he was Pope
The Life of Josef Ratzinger
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Dr.phil. Irmtraud Eve Burianek (Author), 2011, Joseph Ratzinger. The Life of a Pope before he was Pope, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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