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Europe

From a Small Bavarian Town to the Papacy

If his past statements are any indication, Pope Benedict XVI will continue to tread the conservative line that was among the defining characteristics of his predecessor's long reign.

Pope Benedict XVI at his first mass

Born on April 16, 1927 in the small, deeply religious town of Markt am Inn in Bavaria, Ratzinger decided early on to follow a theological career. But the changing political situation in Germany kept him from his goal for a short time.

His father, a former police officer, quit the force in 1937 rather than join the National Socialist Party. Ratzinger, who was in school at that point, was forced to join Hitler Youth, like all other boys. The revelation made headlines last weekend after the Sunday Times of London reported it. But Ratzinger had stated often that he fled the organization as soon as he was no longer forced to go.

Earnest and intellectual

Joseph Ratzinger celebrating Mass in the mountains of Ruhpolding, southern Germany, in 1952

He was a serious student and very rational, traits that would accompany him all through his life and into the clergy. An intellectual, he became a university professor in 1958. Ratzinger's career in theological academia lasted until March 1977, when he was named the archbishop of Munich and Friesing. A few months later, on June 27, he was elevated to cardinal.

After John Paul II began his reign in 1978, it didn't take long for Ratzinger to gain his favor. The two shared conservative views on abortion, pregnancy counseling and women in the church. The Bavarian was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in November 1981.

Ratzinger, the most influential cardinal under John Paul II, spoke out against abortion many times, calling it a "culture of death." He also shared his pope's rejection of the US decision to go to war in Iraq.

Dismayed moderates

As leader of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger delighted the more conservative wing of the church and dismayed moderates and church reformers, who have strong backing in his home country.

Benedict XVI, in 1982, when he was archbishop of Munich

Throughout the 1980s he disciplined Latin American "liberation" theologists, who posit that the church should draw its strength from political activism relating to the poor. In 1992, Leonard Boff, one of the leading thinkers in this movement resigned his priesthood writing in a letter that the papacy of John Paul II was "cruel and without mercy."

Hints at future during mass

As Pope John Paul II neared death, Ratzinger remained his most trusted servant and carried out his duties in his stead. At the mass preceding the conclave to select a new pope, Ratzinger gave a moving performance, surprising many Vatican observers who knew him as a serious, quiet man.

He left no doubt as to where he stood.

"We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires," he said.

DW.DE