April 16, 2023 would have been Pope Benedict XVI’s 96th birthday. In honor of this, I would like to highlight some key moments in the life of this beloved pontiff, focusing mostly on his lesser known early years.
In 1927, April 16 was Holy Saturday. Back in those days, the Easter Vigil was celebrated in the morning. Providentially, this enabled Joseph Ratzinger to be baptized almost immediately after his birth with the freshly blessed water. Later in life, he considered this to be significant. On the one hand, his life began with immersion into the mystery of Easter. On the other hand, “it was not Easter Sunday but Holy Saturday, but, the more I reflect on it, the more this seems to be fitting for the nature of our human life: we are still awaiting Easter; we are not yet standing in the full light but walking toward it full of trust” (Milestones, 8).
The future pope was the youngest of three children born to devout Catholic parents. His father was also named Joseph, and both his mother and sister were named Maria; his brother Georg was the eldest child. His father was a rural police officer in Bavaria, not far from the Austrian border.
The natural beauty of the area impressed the young Ratzinger. Being so close to creation helped him perceive the splendor of the Creator. “In this setting, almost impossibly picture-book as it is, the young Ratzinger became aware of a possible vocation to the priesthood while still a boy” (Aidan Nichols OP, The Thought of Benedict XVI, 5).
The piety of his family and of his fellow Bavarians instilled in the young Ratzinger a great devotion to the faith and to the liturgy. At the age of seven, he wrote a Christmas letter to the Child Jesus asking for his own missal for Mass and a green vestment so that he and his brother could play at being priests (see Peter Seewald, Benedict XVI: A Life, vol. 1, 31).
At the age of ten, Joseph was enrolled in a school that taught classical languages in their curriculum. He began “translating the Greek original of the Gospels into German, in order to take in the material in his own way” (Benedict XVI: A Life, vol. 1, 72). Likewise, around the age of fourteen, he translated liturgical texts from Latin into German “in an improved and more vital way” (Milestones, 29).