VATICAN CITY, April 19 -- In his words and actions, the man who on Tuesday became Pope Benedict XVI has shown a determination to hold fast to the moral certainties that have guided him from the horrors of Nazi Germany through the tumult of the 1960s -- even though these beliefs appear to be falling out of public favor across Europe and much of the developed world.
The choice of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 78, to succeed John Paul II signals a stubborn unwillingness by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church to abandon Europe to secularism. Despite John Paul's efforts to re-evangelize the church's historic heartland, Catholicism has been waning for decades across Western Europe, and nowhere more than in the new pope's home country, where an ecclesiastical tax collected by the government has produced a well-funded church whose pews are largely empty and whose influence on public life is in decline.
The cardinals could have turned away from Europe and chosen a pope from the vibrant congregations of Latin America, Africa or Asia. But in electing Ratzinger they chose to make one more attempt to hold on to the Christian identity of the continent, said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a friend and former doctoral student of the new pope.
Fessio, who is provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., said the name that Ratzinger chose for himself -- Benedict -- is a sign of his determination to re-energize European Catholicism.
"The Benedictine order, in the midst of a collapsing and immoral superpower called the Roman Empire, civilized and Christianized Europe," Fessio said. "Today, Cardinal Ratzinger is our best hope to revitalize Christian culture in Europe -- and probably our last chance, too."
Fessio and others who have worked closely over the years with Ratzinger say that his reputation as a harsh disciplinarian and intellectual bulldog does not conform with the affable man they know.
"He's a kind of simple person. He chuckles," said the Rev. Augustine DiNoia, a Dominican priest from the United States who served as Ratzinger's second-in-command at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department in charge of doctrinal orthodoxy.
Yet the new pope faces a major challenge: overcoming the perception that he is a cold, forbidding figure and demonstrating the friendly, pastoral instincts that made his predecessor so compelling, particularly to young Catholics. Unless Benedict can project a kindly aura and brighter outlook, it is hard to imagine how he can succeed where even John Paul failed, said Giuseppe Alberigo, a professor of church history at the University of Bologna who has known the new pope since the 1960s.
"He has a shy character, rather mild, but with a rigidity on important questions," Alberigo said. "I don't think that a pope with such a pessimistic vision will be able to deal with the great social problems of the world, or the issue of Islam."
Ratzinger's searing experience as a Nazi conscript during World War II left him with an abiding distrust of nationalism and socialism, along with a passionate belief in holding firm to enduring truths, according to those who know him well.
Born into a lower-middle-class family, Ratzinger grew up in Bavaria, a deeply Catholic and politically conservative region. His father was a rural police officer, his mother a cook in small hotels. His father, he has said, went to Mass three times each Sunday.
Ratzinger's biographer, John L. Allen Jr., has pointed out that his formative years coincided with the life span of the Third Reich. He was 6 when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and 18 when the war ended in 1945.
Though his family made no public show of opposition -- in fact, one of his great uncles had written a series of crudely anti-Semitic books -- Ratzinger has described his father as opposing Nazism, largely as an outgrowth of his faith. "My father was one who with unfailing clairvoyance saw that a victory of Hitler's would not be a victory for Germany but rather a victory for the Antichrist," he wrote in his 1998 memoir, "Milestones."
Although the Roman Catholic Church in general and the wartime pope, Pius XII, in particular have been accused of not doing enough to oppose the Holocaust, Ratzinger's personal experience left him convinced that the church was the only institution that could stand up to false ideologies.