Pope Benedict's statement announcing his resignation contained a particularly meaningful phrase. The pope said today he no longer has the strength to lead the Catholic Church in today's world. He spent his years at the Vatican struggling to correct what he saw as worrisome trends in today's world.

And now, as church leaders prepare to swiftly gather and appoint a successor, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli looks back on the long and influential career of the cleric born Joseph Ratzinger.



SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: On April 19th, 2005, after wisps of white smoke puffed from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel, the Roman Catholic Church had its first German pope since the 11th century.


UNIDENTIIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken) Ratzinger.

POGGIOLI: Just one day before his election, the 78-year-old Ratzinger delivered a homily that many analysts later said became the platform of his papacy. He denounced modern trends he said were undermining Catholicism and Western civilization.


POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Through translator) We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything for certain and which has, as its highest goals, one's own ego and one's own desires.

POGGIOLI: Born April 16th, 1927 in Bavaria, Ratzinger was the son of a police officer and a hotel cook. Age 12, he entered a seminary, and in his early teens, at the height of World War II, he joined the Hitler Youth when membership was mandatory.

Drafted in 1943, he served briefly in an anti-aircraft battalion. Near the end of the war, the 18-year-old deserted, but was captured by U.S. soldiers and held for several months as a POW.

Benedict rarely spoke publicly about his childhood during Nazism, or of the Catholic Church's relations with the Third Reich. On his first foreign trip as pope to his native Germany, he visited a synagogue and addressed what he called the often-painful history of relations between Christians and Jews in Germany.


BENEDICT XVI: (Through translator) And in the 20th century, in the darkest period of German and European history, an insane racist ideology born of neopaganism gave rise to the attempt - planned and systematically carried out by the regime - to exterminate European Jews. The result has passed into history as the Shoah.

POGGIOLI: Ordained a priest in 1951, Ratzinger began his career as an academic. And at the age of 35, he became a theological adviser to the second Vatican Council. He was appointed bishop of Munich in 1977.

Four years later, Pope John Paul II summoned him to Rome to become the Vatican's theological watchdog. One of his most controversial documents was "Dominus Jesus," which restated the primacy of the Catholic Church and branded non-Christian faiths as gravely deficient. Presenting the document at a Vatican press conference, Cardinal Ratzinger said the concept of interreligious dialogue promoted by the Second Vatican Council had often been distorted into what he called an ideology of dialogue.


BENEDICT XVI: (Through translator) The principle of tolerance and respect for freedom promoted by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council are today being manipulated and erroneously taken too far.

POGGIOLI: Although the axis of Catholicism had already shifted away from Europe to the developing world, Pope Benedict made clear his central mission was reaffirming Europe's Catholic identity and shoring up the church's most traditional elements as the continent underwent strong secularization, low birth rates and the growing presence of Muslim immigrants.

He singled out Italian Catholics, urging them to serve as a beacon for Europe's re-evangelization.


BENEDICT XVI: (Through translator) The trap of secularism is present everywhere. The need for a faith that meet the challenges of our time is likewise universal.

POGGIOLI: One of those challenges was the growth of Islam in what had been the cradle of Christianity. Benedict did not favor interfaith encounters with Muslims, convinced that Catholicism cannot be put on an equal footing with Islam. And his remarks on Islam and violence triggered Muslim fury worldwide.

In September 2006, in a lecture at his old university at Regensburg on reason and faith, Benedict quoted a remark made by a 14th-century Byzantine emperor deriding Islam.


BENEDICT XVI: (Through translator) He said, and I quote, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread, by the sword, the faith he preached."

POGGIOLI: Tensions with the Islamic world eased two months later when the pope visited Istanbul's Blue Mosque and prayed silently next to a Muslim cleric. But he never issued a formal apology.

Jewish-Catholic relations under Benedict were sometimes rocky, as the pope strived to bring back into the fold ultraconservative Catholics who had split with the Vatican over the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In 2008, Jewish protests over Benedict's reinstatement of the traditional Latin Mass with its Good Friday prayer calling for the conversion of Jews led the Vatican to change some of the prayer's wording. A few months later, the pope backpedaled again, following worldwide outrage over his decision to lift the excommunication of a renegade bishop who - it became clear - was a Holocaust denier.

Receiving a delegation of major American Jewish leaders, Benedict assured them of the Catholic Church's profound and irrevocable rejection of anti-Semitism.


BENEDICT XVI: The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and against humanity. This should be clear to everyone, especially to those standing in the tradition of the Holy Scriptures. It is beyond question that any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable.

POGGIOLI: One of Benedict's most successful and most emotional trips was to the United States in 2008, where he tackled the most painful issue for the American Catholic Church, clerical sex abuse, saying he was deeply ashamed. As enforcer of Catholic dogma, Cardinal Ratzinger chastised dissident theologians, said no to women priests, no to married priests and no to gay marriage. He described homosexuality as an objective disorder and an intrinsic moral evil. And as pope, Benedict XVI firmly upheld the church bans against divorce, birth control, abortion and stem-cell research.

In the eyes of liberal Catholics, Benedict XVI was a fierce opponent of modernizing reforms. But for conservative faithful, Benedict was the champion who restored the traditionalist core of Catholicism.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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