Born in Germany in 1927, Pope Benedict XVI grew up under war reparations from World War I, as the Nazi regime was gaining power. He was briefly a member of the Hitler Youth in his early teens, after membership became mandatory in 1941. He turned to theological studies after the war, helping found the influential journal Communio.
Pope Benedict XVI was elevated to the papacy in 2005. In February 2013, Benedict XVI resigned from his position as pope.
In a public letter written in February 2018, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated that he was nearing the end of his life. “I can only say that with the slow waning of my physical forces, I’m on a pilgrimage towards home,” he wrote, adding: “It is a great gift for me to be surrounded, on this last stretch of this sometimes tiring road, by a degree of love and goodwill that I could never have imagined.”
Benedict also stated he was at peace with his approaching death.
In February 2013, at the age of 85, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would be resigning on February 28, 2013 — becoming the first pope in centuries to step down from his post.
According to several media reports, Benedict’s decision centered on his old age, and physical and mental weakness. In one statement, the pope explained, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise.” He went on to state, “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me… For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom, I declare that I renounce the ministry of bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter.”
Benedict served his final day as pope on February 28, 2013. Traveling by helicopter, he departed the Vatican for the summer papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy. Benedict stayed there while renovations were made to a convent, Mater Ecclesiae, in the southwest corner of Vatican City, which became his residence.
One of Benedict’s final acts as a pope was to send a message to the faithful via his Twitter page. “Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the center of your lives.” He will continue to be known as Benedict XVI in his retirement and has been given the title of pope emeritus.
Benedict has written a total of 66 books. Among them are: Introduction to Christianity (1968); Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (1996); The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000); Jesus of Nazareth (2007); Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. II (2012); and Last Testament: In His Own Words (2016).
Pope Benedict XVI was born Joseph Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, Bavaria, Germany, the youngest of three children. His father was a policeman and his mother a hotel cook (before she married). His family moved frequently among villages in rural Bavaria, a deeply Roman Catholic region in Germany, as the Nazis strengthened their stranglehold on Germany in the 1930s. His father was a determined anti-Nazi, Ratzinger wrote. “Unemployment was rife,” he wrote in his memoir, Milestones. “War reparations (from World War I) weighed heavily on the German economy. Battles among the political parties set people against one another.”
As a defense against the Nazi regime, Ratzinger threw himself into the Roman Catholic Church, “a citadel of truth and righteousness against the realm of atheism and deceit,” he wrote.
Ratzinger entered preparatory seminary in 1939. But he could not avoid the realities of the day. Ratzinger was briefly a member of the Hitler Youth in his early teens, after membership became mandatory in 1941.
In 1943, Ratzinger and fellow seminarians were drafted into the anti-aircraft corps. He has said his unit was attacked by Allied forces that year, but he did not take part in that battle because a finger infection had kept him from learning to shoot.
After about a year in the anti-aircraft unit, Ratzinger was drafted into the regular military. He told TIME magazine in 1993 that while stationed near Hungary, he saw Hungarian Jews being sent to death camps.
Ratzinger was sent home and then called up again before deserting in late April 1945. He was captured by American soldiers and held as a prisoner of war for several months.
Ratzinger returned to the seminary at the University of Munich in the fall of 1945 and was ordained a priest in 1951. Two years later, he earned his doctorate at the University of Munich. He earned his teaching licentiate in 1957 and became a professor of Freising College in 1958, teaching dogma and fundamental theology.
Ratzinger became a professor at the University of Bonn in 1959. Later, he moved to the University of Muenster (1963-66) and took a chair in dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen. Alienated by the student protests at Tübingen, he returned to Bavaria, to the University of Regensburg.
Promotion Within the Church
At the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Ratzinger served as chief theological expert to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, Germany. He was viewed as a reformer during this time.
In 1972, Ratzinger helped found the theological journal Communio, which became one of the most important journals of Catholic thought.
In March 1977, he was named archbishop of Munich and Freising and, three months later, was named a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II named Ratzinger prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 1998, he became vice dean of the College of Cardinals and was elected dean in 2002. Ratzinger defended and reaffirmed Catholic doctrine, including teaching on topics such as birth control, homosexuality and inter-religious dialogue.
Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy on April 19, 2005, upon the death of Pope John Paul II, and celebrated his Papal Inauguration Mass five days later. Known for his rigid views on Catholicism, he sought a more inclusive image as pope.
In 2008, Benedict made his first visit as pope to the United States, where he spoke out against clerical sexual abuse and delivered an address at the United Nations. That same year, to foster relations and understanding between religions, Benedict addressed the first Catholic-Muslim Forum, a three-day conference of Catholic theologians and Islamic scholars.
In 2010, allegations of sexual and physical abuse by parish priests and in parochial schools — particularly in Germany, Ireland and the United States — brought Benedict, and his role in the cases in Germany in particular, under close media scrutiny. In a pastoral letter, Benedict rebuked the bishops of the Irish church for a failure of leadership. The Vatican also denounced the charge that, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict had been responsible for the Vatican’s policy of covering up cases of sexual abuse, declaring that his handling of the cases showed “wisdom and firmness.”
Though Benedict has no further administrative or official duties and rarely appears in public, he did join Pope Francis on December 8, 2015, as he pushed open the great bronze doors of St. Peter’s Basilica to launch his Holy Year of Mercy. Benedict walked through the doorway right after Francis, gingerly negotiating the two steps with the help of a cane and his longtime assistant. Pope Francis seemed taken aback by Benedict’s frailty when he saw him at the Holy Door, and he asked the throngs of pilgrims in the piazza to send their prayers for his “good health.” The crowd responded with cheers and applause.
- Pope Benedict XVI Biography (Biography)