Joseph Ratzinger was baptized hours after he was born on an icy Holy Saturday morning in a Bavarian village at the base of the Alps. The holy water had been blessed just hours before, at a vigil on the eve of Easter Sunday in 1927.
"To be the first person baptized with the new water was seen as a significant act of Providence," Ratzinger would write years later in "Milestones," his 1998 autobiography. He said his parents often mentioned the special connection with the church.
From the beginning, Ratzinger made clear his life was destined to be in service to the Catholic Church.
The youngest of three children born to Maria and Josef, the family moved frequently for the first 10 years of his life. His father often sought work as a policeman in a triangle of southern Bavaria, between the Salzach and Inn rivers, near the Austrian border. It was a place whose "landscape and history marked my youth," he wrote. Catholicism and the simple liturgical life of the church dominated and Ratzinger recalled a warm and happy family life with his parents and older siblings, Georg and Maria.
Experienced Nazi era
But the happiness of those early years faded during the Nazi era. Ratzinger was 6 when Adolf Hitler came to power, and he says he was enrolled against his will in the Hitler Youth, as required of all German adolescents. He said he never attended any meetings. His father, who once wrote that "a victory of Hitler's would not be a victory for Germany but rather a victory for the anti-Christ," moved the family from the town of Tittmoning after a dispute with local Nazi leaders.
In 1939, when he was 12, Ratzinger entered the seminarian school in Traunstein, where he said the classes in Greek and Latin awoke his intellect. But four years later, his whole class was drafted into the Flak, an antiaircraft corps, specifically into a unit that was to defend a nearby BMW auto plant. There he saw slave laborers from the Dachau concentration camp.
Ratzinger was soon dismissed from the corps to continue his studies. Then, in the late fall of 1944, he was drafted to dig ditches. Six months later, he deserted the army but was captured by the advancing American army as a prisoner of war. Two months later, he was released and hitchhiked home.
When the war was over, he re-entered the seminary with his brother, and the two were ordained in 1951. While his brother chose to be a pastor, Ratzinger began a career dominated by theological study. He was just 35 years old when he attracted attention in Rome during the Second Vatican Council, in 1962. He was appointed a chief adviser to Cardinal Joseph Frings.
"He was still a young professor, he was very popular and had the reputation at the time of being a liberal and one of the up-and-coming theologians of his generation," said the Rev. Richard Viladesau, who as a young priest from the diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., was studying at the Gregorian University in Rome in the early 1970s.
A change in thinking
The course Ratzinger taught was about the Eucharist and "it was forward-looking, solid, sacramental theology," said Viladesau, now a professor of theology at Fordham University in New York City.
Ratzinger's career in the church took a surprise turn when Pope Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Munich in 1977. A few months later, he was made a cardinal and began climbing the rungs of power in the Church.
When and why did this progressive Catholic thinker became the man who would be known as the "Enforcer" of strict Catholic dogma? Some say he became disillusioned by the worldwide student upheavals in the late 1960s and his students' flirtation with Marxism at the university where he taught in the town of Tubingen.
Prominent German liberal theologian Hans Kueng said that the conversion happened when Pope John Paul II called upon Ratzinger, then a cardinal in Munich, to become his top aide. Kung said when Ratzinger decided to go to Rome, he "sold his soul for power." However, Ratzinger himself said he never "switched sides."
Ratzinger ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The successor office to the infamous Inquisition, the Congregation is a central part of the Vatican, responsible for weighing in on any action or document that touches on the core teachings of the church.
He made a point of attacking Liberation Theology, a school of thought that joined Marxist philosophy with Christian teachings, especially popular in Latin America -- and a particular thorn in the side of John Paul II. Ratzinger oversaw the preparation of documents clarifying the church's opposition to Liberation Theology and silenced one of its primary proponents, the Rev. Leonardo Boff.
Reaches a turning point
How he will make the transition to Pope Benedict XVI might be foretold by his Bavarian roots. Unlike his predecessor, John Paul, who expressed such an affection for crowds and travel, Ratzinger has preferred the solitude of walking through the streets of Rome alone.
Until Tuesday, Ratzinger lived in an apartment off St. Peter's Square that he shared with his sister, Maria, until she died in 1991. When he wanted to vacation, he visited his brother in Bavaria.
Ratzinger does share his predecessor's linguistic gifts. While his official biography says he is fluent in German, Italian and English, he also is conversant in French, Spanish and Portuguese and even learned some Polish, according to Salvador Miranda, a retired librarian at Florida International University, who keeps detailed records about the church's cardinals on his personal Web site.
In his autobiography, Ratzinger describes his appointment as archbishop of Munich as the turning point in his life with God. He cites the great church scholar St. Augustine, who described himself as a beast of burden for the church when he was called upon to be a bishop. So Ratzinger concludes his memoir by using Augustine's metaphor:
"I have carried my load to Rome and have now been wandering in the streets of the Eternal City for a long time," Ratzinger wrote. "I do not know when I will be released, but one thing I do know: 'I have become your donkey, and in just this way am I with you.' "