He is most immediately remembered outside the Catholic Church for his surprise resignation, the first papal abdication since 1415, and subsequent life as the world’s first “pope emeritus” in centuries.
Benedict was born Joseph Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in Bavaria. He came of age in Germany after World War I at the same time the Nazi regime was growing in power.
His Roman Catholic family was harassed and punished by the Nazi Party for their opposition to state policies which shaped his desire to commit to the church.
Ratzinger was inspired to join the priesthood at an early age when he was tasked with presenting flowers to Archbishop Michael von Faulhaber of Munich. Seeing the clergyman’s crimson robes and refined demeanor, the five-year-old Ratzinger declared he would become a cardinal.
“It was the way the cardinal looked, his bearing, and the knickerbockers he was wearing that made such an impression on him,” Benedict once recalled in an interview with the New York Times.
At the age of 14, Ratzinger was mandated by law to become a member of the Hitler Youth alongside all other German children of his age group. Ratzinger resented the organization and became horrified after his cousin, who suffered from Down’s syndrome, was abducted and killed by the government as part of their Aktion T4 campaign.
Despite entering seminary, Ratzinger was drafted into the anti-aircraft corps in 1943 and later into the regular military during World War II. He deserted the German military in April 1945.
Benedict said that he chose to abandon the military after witnessing the horrors of the war, including Jews in Hungary being sent to death camps, according to an interview with Time Magazine in 1993.