The Turning Point

How the upheavals of 1968 turned a Vatican II reformer into an ardent conservative

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Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger was born to parents named Joseph and Maria on Holy Saturday, April 16, 1927, in the town of Marktl am Inn in Germany's southern Bavaria. The family was profoundly Catholic, as was the entire region. Joseph's policeman father attended three Masses every Sunday. His older brother Georg became a priest and went on to conduct a famous choir at the Regensburg cathedral. His sister Maria would become Joseph's longtime secretary and, some believe, his model for the "simple faithful" who needed occasional protection from the wilder ideas of the Catholic academy.

In a memoir of his early years, Ratzinger remembered a happy childhood of nature walks and learning to play the piano, a lifelong hobby. He imbibed deeply of the centuries-old rhythm of Bavarian life, with its seamless combination of the calendars of the farmland and the church.His first true inkling of the fullness of his future calling, however, may have been the profundity of the Latin Mass, for which he had a German translation. "Here I was encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created," he later wrote in his memoir. "It was much more than a product of human history."

The distinction was important because the particular official authority at the time was National Socialism. The Ratzingers, like many Bavarians, especially after Hitler began declaring anti-Catholic sentiments, were anti-Nazi, if not heroically so. Ratzinger's father predicted that a victory by Hitler would bring on the Apocalypse and was at one point demoted in the police force because of his opinions.

Although the press has made much of the Pope's having once belonged to the Hitler Youth, such membership was compulsory. In his 2000 book Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith, John Allen concludes that Ratzinger was "only briefly a member ... and not an enthusiastic one." His military service seems to have been similar. In a 1993 interview with TIME, Ratzinger explained that although he was drafted into the paramilitary corps in 1943, an infected finger prevented him from learning how to shoot. The following year he put up tank traps near the borders of Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary, where, he recalled in the same interview, he saw Hungarian Jews being shipped to their death. At war's end he deserted (again, like many Germans), did some time in an American POW camp and made his way home.

Some Germans tried to forget the worst aspects of the Hitler years. Others transmuted them into a vivid antiauthoritarianism. Ratzinger drew a third moral: an enhanced awe of his church, which--although hardly without blemish--had resisted co-optation more successfully than had German Protestantism. "In the inferno that had swallowed up the powerful," he wrote later, "she had stood firm with a force coming to her from eternity." That idea--that the eternal, divine truth he had experienced through the liturgy and parsed in the catechism was the only bulwark against man-made "truths" ranging from the mischievous to the murderous--would recur throughout his life.

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