Early Teenage Years

In his 1998 book Milestones: Memoirs 19271977, Joseph Ratzinger recounts the circumstances surrounding his entry into the minor seminary at age 12:

For us, the seizure of power in Austria by the brown rulers [the Nazi party, in 1938] had a positive aspect. The borders of this neighboring country had been closed by Hitler…But now Austria was open again, although of course at a high price. From that day on, we often went with our parents to nearby Salzburg, where we never failed to make the pilgrimage up to Maria Plain, visit the glorious churches, and breathe in the atmosphere of this unique city. […]

About this time, a quite radical change occurred in my life. For two years I had been very happily going from home to school every day, but now the pastor urged me to enter the minor seminary in order to be initiated systematically into the spiritual life… And so the decision was made, and at Easter of 1939, I entered the seminary. I did so with joy and great expectations because my brother had told me many exciting things about the place and because I had developed good friendships with the seminarians in my class. However, I am one of those people who are not made for living in a boarding school… But the greatest burden for me was the imposition of a progressive idea of education: every day for two hours, we had to participate in sports…

Meanwhile, the drama of history was becoming increasingly grave with every violent act of the Third Reich. The crisis in the Sudetenland was ignited and fanned into full flame by a mechanism of lies that even someone half blind could see through…

Despite the grimness of the situation, I was facing a good year at the gymnasium at Traunstein. The Greek and Latin classics filled me with enthusiasm, and mathematics, too, in the meantime had caught my interest. Above all, I now discovered literature… This was a time of interior exaltation, full of hope for the great things that were gradually opening up to me in the boundless realm of the spirit. Alongside this experience, however, there also stood the fact that almost every day the newspaper informed us of some soldier’s death… Increasingly we recognized the names of gymnasium schoolmates who only a short while before had been our classmates, full of confidence and the joy of life.

Joseph (left) and brother Georg Ratzinger were ordained together in 1951

Captivity and Release

In 1943, in the waning days before Germany’s capitulation in World War II, the Ratzinger brothers, now older teenagers, were conscripted for a brief time into the army. Joseph dug defensive ditches in eastern Austria to prepare for the Soviet armies which would defeat Germany. In the summer of 1945, in southern Germany, occupying American forces rounded up German army conscripts, held thousands of them captive in a huge open field for a period of just days, and then released them.

Georg, in his 2011 memoir My Brother the Pope, remembers his own homecoming: “Americans took us in their vans into the areas where we lived. I was running home and wanted to know: Is anyone alive? Are the same people there? Is my house there? My mother was standing at the well, my father was at home, my brother had returned from captivity, and my sister was also there. That was probably the sweetest moment in my life.”

“Here I Am”

Joseph Ratzinger was ordained to the priesthood, along with his older brother Georg, on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, 1951, by Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber in the cathedral at Freising, Germany. He recalls the moment the cardinal archbishop laid hands on him as part of the rite of Ordination:

We were more than 40 candidates who, at the solemn call on that radiant summer day, which I remember as the high point of my life, responded “Adsum,” “Here I am.”

We should not be superstitious, but, at the moment when the elderly archbishop laid his hands on me, a little bird — perhaps a lark — flew up from the high altar in the cathedral and trilled a little joyful song. And I could not but see in this a reassurance from on high, as if I heard the words, “This is good. You are on the right path.”

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