TRAUNSTEIN, Germany, April 20 -- The Ratzinger family lived in a modest farmhouse at the far edge of this southern German town with a clear view of soaring pine trees and the majestic, snow-capped Bavarian Alps. Each day, Joseph, who was 12, and his older brother Georg hiked a half hour across town to St. Michael's Seminary, where both excelled at their studies.
It was here in his formative years, according to those who know him, that Joseph Ratzinger, the man who has become Pope Benedict XVI, learned lessons of piety and faith that molded his views and made him a fierce traditionalist. It was also here that he briefly became a member of the Hitler Youth and eventually a conscript in World War II. And it is here he has returned for a week each year, sharing with his brother a modest set of apartments at the seminary, to renew his ties to this place and its people.
"The guy is entirely Bavarian and he will always remain so," Thomas Frauenlob, the seminary's director, said in an interview Wednesday. "This is someone for whom the landscape and the culture and traditional ways of living have a deeper meaning and emotion. He's aware of his roots and he cares for his roots."
Many Germans were stunned Tuesday evening to hear that one of their own -- albeit a cleric who had spent more than two decades living and working at the Vatican -- had been chosen as the spiritual leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics. Conservatives were generally delighted, while others expressed caution and concern that the cleric, most closely identified with enforcing longstanding dogma and doctrines, is now in charge.
"He's the son of a policeman and he worked like a policeman in the Vatican, especially for dissidents and modern theologians," said Christian Wiesner, spokesman for the pro-reform We Are Church movement, which criticized Ratzinger's approach to church teachings when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Still, Wiesner added, "Maybe because he's a conservative, if he proposes changes, other conservatives could be persuaded to follow him."
But no matter what their church politics, most residents of Traunstein expressed pleasure and amazement that their tidy, middle-class town of 18,000 had suddenly become a new center of the Catholic world.
"We expect that this little town will have a little more attention," said Vice Mayor Hans Zillner, grinning broadly.
Ratzinger was born in the Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn in 1927, but his family moved at least three times during his childhood, according to John L. Allen Jr.'s biography, "Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith."
Traunstein was the longest stop: The Ratzingers lived in this deeply Catholic area for six years. Frauenlob estimates that 75 percent of the town's population is Catholic, with an even larger proportion in the surrounding countryside. But he concedes that many of the problems the church faces throughout Western Europe are also apparent here -- a growing shortage of new priests, decline in Catholic education and a sharp drop in church attendance.
"The churches are really only full at Christmas and Easter," Zillner said.
Ratzinger's home in Traunstein by all accounts was in an idyllic rural setting. It was near the Ettendorfer Church where the local priest still blesses hundreds of farm horses on the Monday after Easter, an event that draws thousands of residents. Ratzinger has written that he was deeply moved by the rituals of Catholic worship he observed at Traunstein, including candlelight services during Advent and an Easter service in which the Resurrection was announced by the sudden dropping of the curtains to let in the light, according to the Associated Press.
Growing up Bavarian and being exposed at an early age to the church were the two great influences on Ratzinger, said Antonius Liedhegener, a political scientist and religion expert at Jena University. "For a young Bavarian boy, in those days the church was like your mother," he said.
Ratzinger attended St. Michael's for two years, from 1939 to 1941, according to Frauenlob, who says former seminarians have told him that Joseph and Georg Ratzinger were brilliant students who excelled at all their subjects, although the frail Joseph hated sports. Joseph Friedrick Schmitt, a classmate of Georg, says Joseph also hated the corporal punishment that was part of the daily regimen here. "It was like an English boarding school here," Schmitt said.
The seminary had to close in 1941 when the Nazi government turned the grounds into a military hospital. Ratzinger has written that he was forced against his will to join the Nazi youth movement around that time.