Bavarian Town Excited About Famous Son

Residents of Traunstein celebrate the new pope and are eager to reminisce about the youth who grew up to become their priest.

By Jeffrey Fleishman

Los Angeles Times

April 21, 2005

TRAUNSTEIN, Germany — Boys with scrubbed faces and too-big suits rushed over the marble floors outside the white-walled chapel Wednesday. They were hoping to be asked about the new pope, who decades earlier whirled through these same hallways as a young man bound for the priesthood.

Many of the boys at St. Michael's seminary here have met Pope Benedict XVI, still known to them as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Some have eaten with him; others have watched him pray in the chapel on Christmas holidays when he slipped out of the Vatican and returned to the mountains of Bavaria.

They all had a story, a few sentences, an image that let them brush against history.

"It's a big excitement," said Andreas Ostner. "We watched him get elected pope Tuesday night. We had a Mass, and then we had a little champagne. We celebrated until 11 p.m."

This town of 18,000, where Benedict spent much of his youth and which he still considers home, has become a happy place of remembrance. Germans temper their emotions, and pride — which the Nazis perverted into a national sin — is rarely displayed. But this country hasn't had a pope in centuries, so a bit of giddiness seemed appropriate as Bavarians pointed the way toward the seminary and strolled into St. Oswald's, where the new pope gave his first sermon after his ordination as a priest in 1951.

"I recall that day of his sermon," said Rosa Berreiter, standing with her husband, Alois, in a drizzle, each nudging the other's memory. "I was 16 years old. There must have been 1,000 people in the church and town square. We came up from our house near the big lake…. We never thought he'd be pope, though."

"So much competition," said Alois Berreiter, a gray felt cap shading his eyes.

"Italians and South Americans were in the running," said Rosa Berreiter.

They turned and ambled away with the feeling that the pope, who has lived outside Germany for more than 25 years, is at once vibrant and distant to them.

An unspoken competition has broken out over which town can claim Benedict. During his youth, the pope's family moved several times along the Alpine mountains where Germany borders Austria.

The pope was born in 1927 in Marktl am Inn, a hamlet of about 2,500 people about an hour north of Traunstein. There's a plaque on his first house, and to celebrate his papacy Wednesday, Marktl am Inn's two bakeries offered "Vatican bread" and pastries shaped like bishop's hats, an idea hatched after Mayor Hubert Gschwendtner invited the whole town to a free beer party.

Traunstein hasn't launched such marketing gimmicks but hopes to attract more visitors, said the town's deputy mayor, Hans Zillner, who noted that Benedict had surpassed poet Ludwig Thoma as the town's most famous son.

"The only problem is there's a number of places connected to the pope's name," he said. "But he spends Christmas here, and to me, where you spend Christmas is the place you consider home.

"There are many memories of Ratzinger here," Zillner said. "The other day, the baker Gerhard Kotten told me that Ratzinger confirmed him when he was a child."

Up the road and around the bend, Rupert Berger stood in his doorway, leaning on a broom, his white hair untamed above his collar. He grew up with and was ordained the same year as Benedict. He recollected darker images, such as the 1930s, when Nazism was on the rise and Hitler Youth brigades played track and field games and crawled through the mud in pre-military exercises.

Benedict, like many Germans of his day, felt pressured as a boy to join the Hitler Youth. Berger did not. He said his father, who would later survive the Dachau concentration camp and return after the war to become mayor of Traunstein, was a leader in a resistance movement, and his fervor was passed to his children.

Berger said he did not blame Benedict or anyone else for what happened when they were children unaware of Nazi designs.

"Why? You should ask the majority of Germans that question," Berger said. "There was such pressure back then not to join the resistance."

Men with lights and chairs were preparing for a Mass at St. Oswald's to honor the new pope. But across much of Germany, where two-thirds of the population is non-Catholic, Benedict's ascension as the 264th successor to St. Peter drew interest but not euphoria. The German media did not shift to frenzy, and the headlines in two newspapers reflected the wider mood: Bild bannered, "We Are Pope." And the left-wing Tageszeitung wrote in white letters against a black page, "Joseph Ratzinger New Pope, Oh My God."

In Traunstein, Willy Schauer played with his umbrella and spoke of his suspicions.

"I believe in God," said the visiting Austrian. "I'm a Catholic, but Ratzinger means little to me. The Curia in Rome has created a cult of power, and that's not good."

The new pope's brother, Georg Ratzinger, a retired priest, made sporadic appearances in the national media, wondering whether his brother was healthy enough for the rigors of leading more than 1 billion Catholics.

"At this age, when all these little aches and pains start, it would be a big wall burying him," the brother said in a radio interview. "I have believed that [his] advanced age and a not very sound health would be a reason for the cardinals to look for somebody else."

He added to a German news service, "I hope I get a direct dialing number for him" in the Vatican.

There were no doubts about health or leadership or phone numbers at St. Michael's. Rain fell across the campus, rattling the brown tile roof and washing down the stucco walls. Inside, wet shoes squeaked across marble floors, and Father Thomas Frauenlob opened the chapel, where Ratzinger prayed in the 1940s. Boys and young men scurried, peeking around corners at growing numbers of reporters.

"It's nice to be in the same school and live in the same house where the pope once lived," said Stefan Koerber, 14. "I was so happy I couldn't believe he became pope."

Two boys darted past the chapel on their way back from lunch, and another appeared in a blue suit, staring at a television camera that panned over a portrait of Ratzinger. A busy man with a cellphone and a perspiring brow rushed through the hall.

"I had lunch with Cardinal Ratzinger twice," said Michael Winichner, a tutor and athletic coach for the seminary's 56 students. "He's easy to talk to. He's different from Pope John Paul II. He doesn't fascinate you from the first moment. He's a bit shy and needs time to warm up. You might need to take a second glance to know really who Ratzinger is."

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Times staff writer Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this report.