Pope Benedict XVI Risked Death

New Pope Risked Death by Deserting in WWII

By DAVID McHUGH, Associated Press Writer

BERLIN – In May 1945, thousands of German prisoners of war trudged down the highway toward the Bavarian town of Bad Aibling. Among them — tired but grateful to be alive — was 18-year-old Joseph Ratzinger, who days before had risked death by deserting the German army.

“In three days of marching, we hiked down the empty highway, in a column that gradually became endless,” the new pope recalled years later in his memoirs.

“The American soldiers photographed us, the young ones, most of all, in order to take home souvenirs of the defeated army and its desolate personnel.”

Like his predecessor, John Paul II, Ratzinger was marked by the terror-filled years of World War II. Karol Wojtyla was forced to work in a quarry and narrowly escaped arrest in a mass roundup of young men by the Germans in Krakow; Ratzinger’s experiences were also harrowing.

In particular, his decision to leave his army unit just after he turned military age could have cost Ratzinger his life.

At the time, he knew that the dreaded SS units would shoot a deserter on the spot — or hang him from a lamppost as a warning to others. He recalled his terror when he was stopped by other soldiers.

“Thank God they were ones who had had enough of war and did not want to become murderers,” he wrote in his book, “Aus meinem Leben,” published in English as “Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977.”

“They had to find a reason to let me go. I had my arm in a sling because of an injury.”
“Comrade, you are wounded,” they told him. “Go on.”

Soon he was home with his father, Josef, and his mother, Maria.

For years, he and his family had watched the Nazis strengthen their grip on Germany. His father, a policeman and a convinced anti-Nazi, moved the family at least once after clashing with local followers of the party. A local teacher, he remembered, became an ardent follower of the new movement, and tried to institute a pagan May pole ritual as more fitting of Germanic ways than the traditional, conservative Catholicism.

In 1941, Ratzinger, 14, and his brother, Georg were enrolled in the Hitler Youth when it became mandatory for all boys. Soon after, he writes in his book, “The Salt of the Earth,” he was let out because of his intention to study for the priesthood.

In 1943, like many teenage boys, he was drafted as a helper for an anti-aircraft brigade, which defended a BMW plant outside Munich. Later, he dug anti-tank trenches. When he turned 18, on April 16, 1945, he was put through basic training, alongside men in their 30s and 40s, drafted as the Nazi Reich went through its death agony. He was stationed near his hometown — he doesn’t say where — but did not see combat with the approaching U.S.troops.
After he returned home, the Americans finally arrived — and set up their headquarters in his parents 18th century farmhouse on the outskirts of the town.

They identified him as a German soldier, made him put on his uniform, put up his hands, and marched him off to the town square, where other prisoners were kept. He wound up living in the open air for several weeks, surrounded by barbed wire.

He was finally released June 19 and hitched a ride on a milk truck back to Traunstein.
His family was happy to see him.

“Of course, for full joy, something was missing. Since the beginning of April, there had been no word from Georg,” he remembered. “So there was a quiet worry in our house.”

Suddenly, in the middle of July, in walked Georg, tanned and unharmed. He sat at the piano and banged out the hymn, “Grosser Gott, wir Loben Dich,” “Mighty God, we Praise You” as his family rejoiced.

The war was truly over.

“The following months of regained freedom, which we now had learned to value so much, belong to the happiest months of my life,” he wrote.

Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal

The biography of Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, begins, of course, with his birth in Bavaria, Germany, on April 16, 1927, Holy Saturday, and baptized the very same day, in the newly blessed Easter water. This special baptism was seen from the beginning of his life as a very special blessing of Divine Providence.

Though he and the Ratzinger family saw Naziism as the spirit of Anti-Christ, Joseph was forced into the German army near the end of World War II. He escaped, surrendered to the US forces, and spent a few months in a POW camp. Upon his release, he and his brother Georg entered the seminary and were ordained priests together on June 29, 1951. After receiving his doctorate in theology from the University of Munich in 1953, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger became a professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Bonn. When Vatican Council II began in 1962, Fr. Ratzinger, only 35 years old at the time, was named chief “peritus” or theological advisor to the Archbishop of Cologne, Joseph Cardinal Frings and accompanied him to all four sessions of the council, having input on the writing of several of the Council Documents. From 1969 until 1977 Fr. Ratzinger taught theology at the University of Regensburg and, from 1969 until 1980, he was a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. In 1972, together with French theologian Henri de Lubac and the Swiss priest Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger founded the theological journal Communion which now has editions in 14 countries. It is notable that the Polish edition of Communio was brought about by the archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla.

Fr. Joseph Ratzinger was ordained archbishop of Munich-Freising on May 28, 1977 and was created a cardinal priest by Pope Paul VI on June 27, 1977, his titular church in Rome being St. Mary of Consolation (in Tiburtina).

On April 5, 1993 Cardinal Ratzinger was transferred by Pope John Paul II to the order of cardinal bishops as titular bishop of the suburbicarian see of Velletri-Signi. In 1981 Cardinal Ratzinger became the Prefect (head) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department in charge of protecting the sacred deposit of the faith handed on from the apostles. As such, he was Pope John Paul II’s chief assistant in the formulation of the Pope’s teaching and writing. There is perhaps no one who worked more closely with Pope John Paul II during the course of his pontificate. Cardinal Ratzinger would generally have lengthy private meetings with the Pope twice per week. Before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger also served president of the Pontifical Biblical and Theological Commissions.

On November 6, 1998, Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed Vice-dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals. Prior to the death of Pope John Paul II, he served as a member of the Congregation of Bishops, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the Council for Christian Unity, the Council for Culture, the Commission Ecclesia Dei, and the Commission for Latin America. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger had a decisive role in the writing of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” signed in October 1999 by the Holy See and the World Lutheran Federation in Augsburg, Germany. The declaration, one of the most important ecumenical steps since Martin Luther’s split with the Catholic Church in the 16th century, took place thanks to the dialogue held in November 1998 between Cardinal Ratzinger and Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hanselman in Munich.

As he approached his mid-seventies, Cardinal Ratzinger attempted to retire several times, but Pope John Paul II would not accept his resignation.

It seems Pope John Paul II knew God had other plans for the German Cardinal. At 78, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005, only the second day of the conclave. This speedy election demonstrates a remarkable consensus on the part of the 115 Cardinals who elected him by a two-thirds majority. Their vote was for a defender of the truth, a man of prayer, a humble servant of the servants of God.

 

Besides his academic articles and official Church documents, the new Pope Benedict XVI provides us with a window into his mind and heart through several books, the Ratzinger Report (1996), The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), God and the World (2002) and Introduction to Christianity. Joseph Ratzinger is the oldest cardinal to be named pope since Clement XII, who was also 78 when he became pope in 1730. He is the first German pope since Victor II (1055-1057).