Pope Benedict XVI: a life in pictures

By Tom Phillips, MSN REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
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Pope Benedict XVI to resign on 28 February

Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of the Roman Catholic church and one of the most important religious figures in the world, is to stand down on 28 February. The Vatican confirmed his resignation on 11 February. We look back at the long - and occasionally controversial - life of the man who has been the spiritual leader to more than one billion Catholics worldwide.

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1927: birth

The man who would become pope was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in the village of Marktl am Inn, in Germany's Bavaria region. The youngest child of Joseph Ratzinger, Sr - a local policeman - and Maria Ratzinger, at the age of five he is said to have become so fascinated with the red robes of a visiting Catholic cardinal that he announced his intention to become a cardinal himself one day. He is pictured above (far left) with his parents and his older siblings, Georg and Maria.

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1941: second world war and Hitler Youth

Ratzinger's young life was disrupted by the outbreak of the second world war in 1939. When he turned 14 in 1941, he was conscripted into the Hitler Youth movement - as all German boys were legally required to do. In 1943, he was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit of the German army (pictured above) - serving until shortly before the end of the war, when he deserted as Allied troops approached. He was held as a prisoner of war by the Alllies for several months after the war ended.

Despite the fact that joining the Hitler Youth was mandatory, his involvement in both it and the German army would continue to prove controversial as Ratzinger rose higher in the Catholic Church. However, the evidence suggests that he was never an enthusiastic member, much preferring to immerse himself in his seminary studies - despite the often hostile attitude of the Nazi party to the church. Ratzinger witnessed Nazis beating the parish priest, and he revealed in 1996 that a cousin of his who had Down's Syndrome was killed by the Nazis as part of their eugenics campaign.

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1945 to 1951: studying for priesthood

After the war, Ratzinger - along with his brother Georg - returned to their religious studies, studying at the seminary in Traunstein, the Higher School of Philosophy and Theology of Freising, and at the University of Munich. Joseph and Georg were ordained as priests together on the same day in 1951. Above, the young Father Ratzinger celebrates Mass in the mountains of Ruhpolding, southern Germany, in 1952.

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1952 onwards: academic career

Rather than pursue a life as a parish priest, however, Ratzinger continued his academic studies - working as a lecturer on dogmatic and fundamental theology at the Higher School in Freising (pictured above), before completing first a doctorate in theology and eventually a dissertation that qualified him for University teaching. He became a professor, first at the University of Bonn, then the Universities of Münster, Tübingen, and finally Regensburg, where he held the Chair of dogmatics and history of dogma.

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1977: archbishop

During his time as an academic, Ratzinger became increasingly influential within the hierarchy of the Catholic church, acting as an advisor and helping to launch an influential theological journal. This growing influence was recognised in 1977, when Pope Paul VI appointed Ratzinger as the new Archbishop of Munich and Freising. Above, the newly appointed Archbishop (right) walks with bishop Ernst Tewes.

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1982: prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

After serving as Archbishop for five years, in 1982 Ratzinger was promoted again, with Pope John Paul II naming him Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and of the International Theological Commission. The powerful role of Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put him in control of many of the Church's most controversial subject areas - the post is as an enforcer of the church's doctrine, disciplining theologians and clergy who expressed opinions conflicting with the Church's dogma. In this picture, Cardinal Ratzinger waves goodbye to Bavarian Catholics in Munich as he leaves his Archbishopric.

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1982 onwards: conservative teachings

In his Doctrine of the Faith role, Cardinal Ratzinger was seen as a strong conservative, defending traditional Catholic positions on birth control and abortion, homosexuality, women priests and other controversial social issues, in line with the equally conservative approach of Pope John Paul II (who, in other areas was widely seen as slowly moving the Church in a modernising direction).

Being in charge of discipline within the Church also meant that Ratzinger had to deal with the issue of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy - an issue which would prove controversial many years later, when it emerged that he had written a letter opposing the sacking of a US priest who had abused children, because it might harm the "good of the universal Church". This was seen by many as endorsing the cover-up of child abuse that became a major scandal when it was uncovered years later.

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2005: death of Pope John Paul II

In 1997, at the age of 70, Cardinal Ratzinger actually asked Pope John Paul II for permission to retire from his role in the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith to work in the Vatican archives - but his request was denied by the pope. Ratzinger continued in the role, and when John Paul II's health started to fail in the mid-2000s, he was widely seen as the frontrunner to become the new Pope if John Paul II retired or passed away.

Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, at the age of 84, after over 26 years in the role - the second longest serving pope in history. On April 18, a Papal conclave - a meeting of the cardinals of the Catholic Church - gathered to elect his successor.

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2005: elected pope

The Papal conclave lasted for two days - with the first three ballots of the cardinals not producing a result. Although the ballot process was secret, taking place behind closed doors, it was widely reported that Cardinal Ratzinger's main rival for the position of pope was Carlo Maria Martini, a more liberal Italian cardinal.

In the end, on the fourth vote of the cardinals on the afternoon of April 19, Ratzinger won - and the traditional white smoke, which signals the election of a new Pope, was seen above the Sistine Chapel. Upon his election, Ratzinger chose the papal name of Benedict XVI.

Above, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI waves from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to the massed crowd who had gathered at the Vatican to see the new Pope.

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2005 onwards: papacy

As pope, Benedict XVI took a strongly conservative line on many social issues, reinforcing traditional Catholic teachings on topics like birth control, homosexuality and the ordination of women. He continued the work he did while in charge of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in criticising more liberal interpretations of Catholic theology. But he also continued the tradition of supporting many oppressed or marginalised groups - speaking up for refugees and immigrants, and calling for an end to the persecution of the Roma people.

Most notably, he was forced to confront the biggest scandal to hit the church in many years: the sexual abuse of children by some members of the clergy. While he was accused of having once been complicit in the church's cover-up of the extent of the scandal, as pope he took a much stronger stance. Soon after being elected, he began proceedings against one especially powerful priest who had long been accused of sexual abuse. He also expressed his sorrow over the church's actions, apologised to victims, and pledged to put in place more safeguards to protect children.

In contrast to his previous hardline reputation as John Paul II's "enforcer", those close to him said that in person Benedict XVI was humble and mild-mannered (above, he participates in the tradition of washing priests' feet). He did, however, indulge himself in at least one way: the man who as a child admired a cardinal's red robes brought back many traditional items of decorative papal clothing, such as red shoes and wide-brimmed red hats, that had not been used for decades.