TRAUNSTEIN, Germany – Students at the seminary where Joseph Ratzinger (search) studied for the priesthood as a teenager in the 1940s erupted in cheers Tuesday at the news that he had become the leader of the Roman Catholic Church (search).
Students at St. Michael's seminary in Traunstein (search) pumped their hands in the air, and the schools director was in tears.
"I'm completely overwhelmed. I can't fathom what happened," the Rev. Thomas Frauenlob said. "He eats with us. I can't grasp it. I know he's going to do a really good job."
The class then joyfully ran together into church for Mass, joined by a few people from the town before church's ornate gold altar. Frauenlob, who officiated, said, "We're celebrating our Bavarian pope, and we are thankful."
"It's fantastic that it's Cardinal Ratzinger. I met him when he was here before and I found him really nice," said Lorenz Gradl, 16, who was confirmed by Ratzinger in 2003.
Michael Winichner, the school's prefect who has had dinner with Ratzinger at Christmas time, said there was "a great feeling of celebration."
"He's a very nice man," he said. "He comes off a little bit shy."
One reason the students were excited was the possibility of a trip to Rome to meet the pope. Winichner was hesitant: "I imagine he has a rather full appointment calendar."
Ratzinger was born in the town of Marktl Am Inn, but the family moved often because of his father's job as a police officer, and he wrote in his memoirs that he considered Traunstein his hometown. He visits the town often, and stays in an apartment at the seminary, which now functions as a high school and no longer focuses on preparing young men for the priesthood.
People in Traunstein say they've seen Ratzinger's softer side, despite his reputation as a theological hard-liner. Frauenlob said he has come home to confirm teenagers and had spent time ministering to the old and sick.
Traunstein was where Ratzinger returned after deserting the German army in 1945, and it was the place where he was taken prisoner by U.S. troops. He was released from a U.S. POW camp in June of that year and hitched a ride home on a milk truck.
People who know him bristled at hearing him described as a "Grand Inquisitor."
"He's the right one," said Martin Huber, a custodian who said the cardinal always took the time to ask about his family. "He's warmhearted."
Away from the seminary, Traunstein's central square was quiet. Not everyone was thrilled at Benedict's election.
Nicole Biermaier, 23, had mixed feelings, caught between her Bavarian heritage and her disagreement with Ratzinger on abortion and birth control.
"I'm proud, but it's pretty much all the same to me," she said. "I was raised Catholic but I'm liberal so to speak. I don't think he's the right one."