When Benedict Became a Bishop
President Obama is in Europe this week. He arrived in the Netherlands this morning and his Monday schedule includes a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, participation at the G-7 conference, and dinner at the Dutch palace with King Willem-Alexander.
In Holland, the president is within easy driving distance -- at least by the standards of the autobahn -- of the old stomping grounds of German-born cleric Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI.
It was on this day in 1977 that the future pope was named archbishop of Munich and Freising. That wasn't a big story in the United States. But it seems significant now.
Joseph Ratzinger's title these days is pope emeritus. His eight years heading the Vatican sounds about right to modern American sensibilities. It's the expected tenure of two-term U.S. presidents, including the current Oval Office occupant -- even if no pope had previously given up the job early since the 15th century.
But it some ways, Benedict's very papacy seemed unlikely to Americans. At 14, he was a member of Hitler Youth. At 16, he was pressed into military service digging anti-tank trenches, At 18, he was conscripted into the main German Army and trained to take up arms against the United States.
The year was 1945, and the Wehrmacht was disintegrating, along with the Third Reich, so young Joe Ratzinger didn't do much fighting, and as his unit melted away, he returned to his mother and father's home in Bavaria. When the GIs arrived he was briefly incarcerated in an American-run POW camp.
He'd wanted to be a Roman Catholic cardinal since age 5, however, and after the war he resumed his studies as a seminarian. On this date in 1977, he took a significant step toward realizing his boyhood dream. Three months later, he became a cardinal, and nearly three decades later, he was chosen pope.
It's never easy while they are still among us to know how historic figures will be regarded after their time on the stage, but Pope Benedict's tenure as the leader of the Catholic Church already seems to have a John the Baptist quality to it: His papacy paved the way for Pope Francis, the man described by The Washington Post as "the planet's most popular pastor."
Francis has piqued the interest and admiration of non-Catholics, too, and one of them, Barack Obama, is scheduled to meet with him this week at the Vatican.