A Pontiff Keeps the Faith

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Though already well-known in Catholic theological circles, the 50-year-old Father Joseph Ratzinger was prepared to live out a life of relative obscurity in the quiet confines of German academia. Then one day in 1977, the professor-priest received a fateful visit from a Church official in his study at the University of Regensburg. "We chatted about some insignificant matters," Ratzinger recalled in his memoirs "Milestones, 1927-1977" "and then finally he pressed a letter into my hand, telling me to read it and think it over at home."

That letter contained the Bavarian nativeŽs appointment to become his home region's Archbishop in Munich. It was a choice (by Pope Paul VI) that not only altered Ratzinger's career path, but the course of Catholic Church history. After five years as Munich Arcbishop, Ratzinger was eventually called to Rome by Pope John Paul II to become the VaticanŽs chief of doctrine and discipline and two decades later Pope Benedict XVI.

Upon that sudden first entry into upper Church leadership, Ratzinger later recalled the sunny summer day and marveled at the reaction from the people at his inaugural mass in Munich. "The encounter with so many people who were welcoming this unknown person with a heartfelt warmth and joy that could not possibly have had to do with me personally but that once again showed me what a sacrament was," he wrote in Milestones.

On Saturday, he was back in Munich, where the sun was still shining. This time, of course, the warm welcome was not for some "unknown", but for the hometown priest-made-pope. Still, with surveys showing faith on the wane on the native soil of the Holy Father, the Pope was doing his best to keep positive as he spoke with reporters just before takeoff on a jet at Rome's Ciampino airport.

"It is not true that German Catholicism is as tired as some people think," he said. The 79-year-old pontiff also made an explicit reference to his age, when asked why he was remaining in the southern region of Bavaria (where he will visit his birthplace in Marktl am Inn), foregoing visits to Berlin and other German cities. "I'm an old man," he said, "and I don't know how many more years the Lord will give me."

Seventeen months—and four foreign voyages—into his reign, the pontiff is methodically mapping out what will almost certainly be a shorter papacy than the 26-year reign of Pope John Paul II. He confirmed to reporters on the plane that he plans to take momentous trips to Turkey and Brazil. Back at headquarters, he also seems intent on moving forward with a reform of the Roman Curia hiearchy (see TIME.com on Monday). And while one does get the sense that the Holy Father is pacing himself (he has spent extended periods the last two summers at the relatively calm confines of Castel Gandolfo south of Rome) there is also appears to be a growing awareness from this shy former professor that his personal touch is necessarily a big part of being Pope.

He was showing bursts of authentic emotion Saturday as he waved to the faithful whoŽd turned out, and proudly sang parts of the Bavarian regional anthem. "Inside of me, so many memories of my years in Munich and Regensburg are coming back, memories of people and events that left deep traces in me," he said.

Back in Rome, one way Benedict has found to play to the crowds is by sporting rarely seen papal headwear. In the winter, he has twice donned a fun Santa-like red fur cap, while last week he dusted off a sombrero style red cowboy hat that John Paul had once worn in Mexico. No doubt, Germans are hoping that over the next few days, someone will convince Benedict to put on a traditional Bavarian feathered green Alpine hat. Then, faithful and non-faithful alike, Catholics and Lutherans, will no doubt go wild for the Bavarian Pope.