VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI, on the eve of his controversy-generating visit to a Rome synagogue, said Saturday that the end of Nazi tyranny in his German homeland made him happy and allowed him to resume studies for the priesthood.
His visit to Rome's main synagogue scheduled for Sunday has divided Jewish groups because of Benedict's praise of wartime pontiff Pius XII.
Some Jewish leaders were angered by Benedict's recent move to advance Pius down the path toward possible sainthood. Critics contend that Pius didn't speak out enough to save Jews during the Holocaust, but the Vatican insists that he used quiet diplomacy to save lives.
On Saturday, Benedict reminisced about his youth in Germany with a group of Germans from Freising, the city where he was ordained in 1951 and where he had studied in a seminary a few years earlier after the institution reopened in February 1946, a few months after the war ended.
"We were able to resume (studies) and it was a significant moment in our lives," Benedict said, recalling how he and fellow seminarians felt about returning to the seminary.
In those immediate postwar days, seminary furnishings were "spartan," he recalled in off-the-cuff remarks to a delegation of Freising citizens who conferred honorary citizenship. "But we were happy, not only because we had escaped the war's misery and dangers and Nazi dominion, but because were free" and preparing once more for the priesthood, Benedict said.
The seminarians knew that Christ was "stronger than tyranny, than the strength of its ideology and of its mechanisms of oppression," the pope said.
As a young man in Germany in the final years of the war, Benedict was forced to serve in the Hitler Youth corps and deserted the Nazi army.
The Vatican has said it hopes the pope's appearance at Rome's main synagogue — 24 years after Pope John Paul II's history-making visit to the synagogue helped improve Vatican-Jewish ties — would foster respect for Jews.
Italy's rabbis are split over whether the synagogue should receive Benedict since he signed a decree last month praising Pius' "heroic virtues," an important step in the Vatican process for beatification and possible sainthood.