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Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, celebrates Mass at a mountain site near the Bavarian town of Ruhpolding, Germany, in the summer of 1952. / Getty Images

BERLIN - When Joseph Ratzinger was 7, he wrote to the baby Jesus - the Bavarians equivalent of writing to Santa - telling him what he wanted for Christmas.

"Dear Baby Jesus, come quickly down to earth," he wrote. "You will bring joy to children. Also bring me joy."

The young boy who would grow up to become Pope Benedict XVI decades later requested a Mass prayer book with parallel Latin and German texts, green robes to wear in a dress-up game of Mass in which he would take the role of priest, and a picture of the sacred heart of Jesus.

"He was destined to be someone who loves the church above everything," said Brennan Pursell, author of the biography, Benedict of Bavaria: An Intimate Portrait of the Pope and His Homeland. "If there were early signs of anything - exceptional intelligence, maturity of interest and a lack of worldly concerns."

Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign - the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years -- on Feb. 28 because he was too ill to carry on. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.

Ratzinger was born in 1927, in the Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn, the youngest child of a policeman and his South Tyrolean wife. Those who have known him say that the studious theologian, widely recognized for bent-toward-academic writings and a sharp intellect, showed early the signs of what he would become, in spite of the obstacles life in Germany under National Socialism would throw his way.

He entered the seminary at the age of 12, and says he was unable to avoid becoming a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. In 1943 he was drafted into the anti-aircraft defense and was later captured by American forces and spent several months as a prisoner of war.

He was ordained as a priest in 1951 and quickly established himself as a serious theologian, according to John Allen's biography of the pontiff.

He went on to excel in academia, becoming a professor of theology first at Freising College in the late 1950s, then in Bonn and the University of Muenster before taking a chair in dogmatic theology at the University of Tuebingen. Alienated by the student protests at Tuebingen, he returned to Bavaria, to the University of Regensburg.

"He was sort of reserved, not demanding or dominant, rather friendly - I was kind of blessed to have him as a boss," recalled Siegfried Wiedenhofer, professor emeritus of theology at Johann Goethe University in Frankfurt. Wiedenhofer was a student of Ratzinger's at Tübingen and Regensburg University, as well as his research assistant from 1967 to 1977. "He had a very unpretentious way about him, a reserved type who didn't want to be in the limelight."

But it was a very different period of political unrest in Europe which some say had the greatest impact on Ratzinger's theological development.

Reverend Monsignor Kevin Irwin, professor of liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, says that as professor at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, Ratzinger was "irrevocably marked" by the waves of student protest that swept much of the globe in 1968 - the same year that Pope Paul VI issued his Humanae Vitae.

"From that time on he's been very keen to be clear about what the Catholic Church teaches and what we do not teach," Irwin said. "1968 was the year that Pope Paul issued his encyclical on birth control and that caused a great deal of protests and dissent and I believe that [Benedict's] understanding was that once you allow dissent you are not being clear about what you believe and for him what we believe is obviously what is true."

Ratzinger was among the last cardinals named by Pope Paul VI in 1977, and quickly became a key adviser to John Paul II, who became pope in 1978 after the 33-day papacy of John Paul I. He was named as the head of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith - the office formerly known as the Grand Inquisitor, the church's version of the FBI - in 1981, and his influence as a John Paul confident grew from there, culminating with his becoming the dean of the College of Cardinals, presiding over John Paul's funeral and unofficially running the church during the period of the sede vacante, when there is no pope.

Ratzinger was elected pope on the fourth ballot of the conclave. He later said he had been planning a peaceful retirement after the new pope was elected, and said that during the conclave, when it appeared he was gaining votes, that he "prayed to God, 'please don't do this to me' â?¦ Evidently, he didn't listen."

"He seemed to be uncomfortable with the celebrity aspects of the papacy that came into prominence with John Paul," said Mathew Schmalz, a theologian and professor at Holy Cross. "I think everyone recognizes, whether they agreed with him or disagreed with him in terms of doctrinal positions, that he was who he was. That he wasn't trying to be a different person as pope than he was as a cardinal, as a bishop, and as a priest."

Despite his reluctance, he took to the role with great vigor. Selecting the name Benedict in part as a homage to Pope Benedict XV, who guided the church through World War I, and decrying what he saw as "Cafeteria Catholicism" - in which churchgoers obey only the parts of the Church canon they find appealing - within days of being named pope.

"He was very concerned about in the Western world religion being understood as a kind of private option as opposed to something that demands a total commitment and has a relevance for all aspects of human life," said Schmalz. "His fundamental point was that the entirety of Catholic doctrine is interlinked."

Benedict was frequently accused of being anti-progressive, particularly regarding his focus on traditional interpretation of sexual morality and gender roles within the church, although many argue that it is a pope's role to preserve traditions.

"He sees no reason to overturn, or replace, or deconstruct or dismantle Catholic teaching - it's is an incredibly rich tradition," said Pursell. "He is very interested in seeing it persist and join other, modern belief systems in dialogue. He loves Mozart, he has no desire to see it performed on electric guitars."

A great lover of music who is said to obtain great pleasure from playing Mozart and Beethoven on the piano, Benedict's aesthetic sensibilities were apparent in his attachment to the traditional vestments of the papacy, reviving items like the striking red shoes and Santa-Claus-like camauro hat that had fallen out of use for centuries.

Despite his reserved nature, Benedict XVI will also be remembered for his stirring public addresses. George Weigel calls him, "one of the finest catechists and preachers of our time" while Pursell calls his weekly catechisms on the saints and writers of the gospel "sensational."

"He has continued to lead the church in the direction indicated by Vatican II: toward the New Evangelization, or what I and others have come to call Evangelical Catholicism," said Weigel.

"I hope that he is remembered for his very clear message to Western governments in particular that they not hack off their intellectual and spiritual roots, that they don't give up on youth," said Pursell. "I think he was concerned about the decline of the West and has said some very powerful things about it. But I am not sure if anyone's been listening."

Those who observe the pope closely say that he never forgot his roots as a theologian, first and foremost.

"When John Paul II asked him to become the prefect of Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, one of Ratzinger's conditions was, as long as I can keep publishing as a private theologian, and John Paul II said, no problem," said Pursell.

Sometimes a controversial pope, longtime Vatican observers say that Benedict will be also remembered for his outreach to other faiths. He is also notable for his handling of many of the prickly issues not directly addressed by his predecessor Pope John Paul II - most notably the church sex abuse crisis, which he directly addressed multiple times, calling it a "scourge" but warning it is not a problem confined to the church.

"Change is a part of the church rhetoric, and that was especially the case with Pope Benedict," said Alberto Melloni, professor of Christian History, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. "The first German pope since the 16th century, the first pope to have headed the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith since the 16th century, and the oldest man to be elected pope since the 18th century. And yet what he will be known for is the way he reformed the church from the inside."

While Benedict pushed to close the gaps between spiritual and intellectual teachings in the Church, and how they were perceived and practiced in the world, it was often his choice of issues to champion that marred his image, says Schmalz.

"The criticism would be that he wasn't exactly balanced in the way that he emphasized aspects of Catholic doctrine," he said. "Some people would say there was more emphasis on sexuality issues and of what you could call personal piety than there was say on Catholic social teaching."

Yet others say his view of Cafeteria Catholicism was as damning of those who selected conservative elements of doctrine over liberal ones as the reverse.

"It strikes almost everyone who tries to pick and choose one or another doctrine," said Irwin. "[Benedict] would be very clear about sexual morality and some people would find that offensive. At the same time, in the encyclicals on charity - which I think are his most important writings - he is very concerned about the common good in the economy and has challenged the free market system and that has caused some of the other side to reproach him for being too liberal."

But despite hitting the ground running, analysts say it is difficult to measure Benedict's legacy quickly.

"It will take time to assess Benedict's legacy," said Alistair Sear, a Rome-based church historian. "We don't know which are the reforms that will end up changing the direction of the church and that is important because Benedict was very much a pope who made changes with the inner workings of the church and the faith. John Paul's legacy was clear even when he was still alive. But Benedict's will take time to understand."

It is impossible to judge Benedict's place in history without comparing him to his beloved predecessor Pope John Paul II, Benedict's opposite in many ways, say observers.

Unlike John Paul, who was a broad-shouldered sportsman of 58 when he was elected pope in 1978, Benedict was already old and frail when he was elected at the age of 78, the oldest man elevated to the papacy since Clement XII in 1730. While John Paul wowed the crowds gathered in St. Peter's Square for his introduction as pontiff, sparking impromptu cheers of "Viva il Papa!" Benedict usually opted for public audiences that prompted contemplation among the faithful.

The two pontiffs worked side-by-side for a generation but may have differed in more ways than they were similar.

"Cardinal Ratzinger was perhaps John Paul's most important adviser and confidant but when he became Pope Benedict, the two men became a study in contrasts," said Sear. "John Paul was beloved, Benedict respected. John Paul adored the public, Benedict was much more private."

Timothy Radcliffe, a priest and frequent commentator on church affairs, called Benedict a natural teacher.

"When I met John Paul, which I did from time to time, I never said to myself, 'My God, I'm talking to the pope,' because he made people feel naturally comfortable - he enjoyed being on center stage," said Radcliffe said. "But Pope Benedict [didn't] want to be on center stage. He was always self-effacing. John Paul was like a philosopher who intuitively understood the nature of the human being, while Benedict loves the wisdom of theology - he was always a great teacher."

Though Benedict often lacked the charisma and international appeal that John Paul did, some theologians say it was precisely his record as an instructor that set him apart.

"The encyclicals that he's written will influence and shape discourse in Catholicism for generations to come," said Schmalz. "He was a professor pope and that is in many ways his greatest legacy."

By the standards of German theologian Karl Rehner, Benedict can be seen as a more traditional pontiff than John Paul. Rehner says that first and foremost cardinals in the conclave elect a leader to govern the church and that if he ends up being a wonderful Christian as well, then that is "a happy coincidence."

In Benedict, according to Vatican expert Giancarlo Zizzola, the church had an effective leader and administrator who also turned out to be a wonderful Christian.

"To the outside observer Pope Benedict was never as compelling as John Paul but to serious Catholics and in a historical context he was a strong pope and an inspiring man of faith."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: From humble beginnings, Benedict made his mark on faith

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