Story behind man who became Pope Benedict XVI


By Rev. Brett Garland

Your Pastor Speaks

In my other columns I have tried to write about topics of universal significance to Christians, rather than narrowly writing for my own (Catholic) coreligionists. Perhaps my choice of topic in this article will seem on its surface to stray a little too far into the Catholic sphere, but I do not intend it as such. I have chosen to write about the late Pope Benedict XVI not to convince anyone to become a papist, but to present a figure that I think has something to share with all of us.

Rev. Billy Graham was a preacher whose words resonated beyond denominational lines. Whereas Graham reached the hearts of Christians through his preaching, Pope Benedict gifted Christians with a treasure trove of inspiration through his writing. Before offering a suggestion of where one might start reading his works, let’s first take a look at his story.

Joseph Ratzinger (his name before he was elected pope) grew up in the southeast German state of Bavaria, the son of a police officer and a hotel cook. Perhaps the earliest example of his writing is preserved in a Christmas letter that the 7-year-old Ratzinger wrote to Jesus. It is a sweet memento of the deep faith that Joseph’s family cultivated in him from a young age.

At 12, Joseph entered seminary to begin studying for the priesthood. What should have been a joyous time was filled with anxiety for the family as Joseph’s father was demoted due to his staunch opposition to the Nazi government. Even in seminary, Joseph could not escape the chaos of war. In 1943, Joseph and his fellow seminarians were conscripted into the German army. Many of his classmates never returned to seminary. But Joseph’s experience of the horrors of war strengthened his calling and resolve. He believed that the best way he could respond to such darkness was to remind people of the Light of Christ. At the end of the war, he returned to his studies and was ordained a priest in 1951.

The newly ordained Father Ratzinger was recognized for his sharp intellect, and within a few years, he became a professor of theology. As he gained notoriety for his scholarship, he remained a quiet and humble man who remained close to his family, even at one point providing housing for his parents and sister during the difficult post-war years. Father Ratzinger went on to play an influential role in the Second Vatican Council, the international gathering of church leaders organized to renew the Catholic Church to meet the challenges of the modern age. In 1977, to his surprise, Pope Paul VI named Ratzinger an archbishop and a cardinal. A few years later, Pope John Paul II asked him to serve as his chief of doctrinal matters. Reluctantly, Ratzinger accepted the post. For a quarter of a century, Cardinal Ratzinger served as one of Pope John Paul II’s closest collaborators and friends. Following John Paul’s death in 2005, Ratzinger was chosen to be his successor.

Given Ratzinger’s time in the German army, some opponents characterized him as the “Panzer Cardinal,” a strict disciplinarian for a recalcitrant church. The Netflix movie, “The Two Popes,” also caricatures him as a kind of ecclesiastical ladder climber. Neither of these depictions hold up to scrutiny. Ratzinger/Pope Benedict is remembered by his former students and coworkers as a gentle listener and a consummate teacher. It is also well-documented that he attempted to retire from his post as the doctrinal chief at least four times, to no avail. He never asked to be named a bishop, cardinal, or pope. But when he was called upon to serve, he answered the call humbly and generously.

If you are interested in learning from this great Christian teacher, I can think of no better place to start than his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy of books, which represents the culmination of several decades of scholarship and prayerful reflection on the life of Jesus. The second volume, which covers Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection, offers great spiritual reading in preparation for Easter. Happy reading!

Rev. Brett Garland is the parish priest of St. Mary Parish in Delaware. Before moving to Delaware in 2020, Father Garland served in English- and Spanish-speaking parishes on the west side of Columbus. Having grown up on a family farm in Fayette County, Ohio, he enjoys returning home to spend time with his extended family.

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