Pope celebrates a very Bavarian 85th birthday

Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a very Bavarian birthday Monday, marking his 85 years with his brother, German bishops and a musical band from his native land.

Benedict began the day with a Mass in which he alluded to his own mortality, saying he would carry on his final years knowing that God was watching over him.

"I am facing the final leg of the path of my life and I don't know what's ahead," Benedict said in his homily. "I know though that God's light is there ... and that his light is stronger than every darkness."

Benedict was later joined in the Vatican's frescoed Clementine Hall by about 150 Bavarians, including bishops, political leaders and representatives of the region's Protestant and Jewish communities.

He was serenaded by 10 children dressed in traditional Bavarian garb who danced for him and recited a poem, and by Bavarian musicians who performed a song he and his siblings sang as children while their father accompanied them on a zither.

A very emotional pope said those gathered "represent for me the stations of my life." Speaking off-the-cuff, he singled out the role played by the Jewish community in Bavaria for "bringing me closer emotionally to the Jewish people."

Sitting nearby was Benedict's older brother Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who was ordained on the same day as the pope in 1951 and flew to Rome for this week's celebrations, which also include the seventh anniversary of Benedict's election as pope, on Thursday.

Despite his age and increasing frailty — he has begun using a cane on occasion — Benedict has quashed speculation of a possible resignation. On Sunday, he asked for prayers and strength "to fulfill the mission (the Lord) entrusted to me."

Cardinal Angelo Sodano issued birthday greetings on behalf of the College of Cardinals that elected Benedict, and welcomed the Bavarian bishops to the "family party" inside the Apostolic Palace.

Speaking in Latin, Sodano wished Benedict "many happy years" ahead — sentiments that were echoed in birthday greetings that arrived from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Queen Elizabeth II and Italy's president.

In Benedict's hometown of Marktl Am Inn, the faithful marked his birthday by rising at 4:15 a.m. — the time he was born — and walking from his house to the local church for prayers.

He received several gifts, including a large crucifix, a Maypole, a traditional Bavarian Easter basket and a bunch of white flowers.

One birthday gift arrived ahead of time: a book of 20 essays by prominent Germans reflecting on the papacy, including German football great Franz Beckenbauer, who recalled meeting the pope a few months before Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup.

Beckenbauer said the two differed over what kind of shape Germany's squad was in, with the pope suggesting it was "pretty good."

"I didn't have the same idea; and so I told him that at the very least they were on the right path to becoming good," Beckenbauer wrote. "He smiled kindly."

The book was curated by Benedict's longtime secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein. In an interview Monday with Italy's La Repubblica daily, Gaenswein said the pope is often misconstrued and should be known as a man of great courage.

"The German pope doesn't fear delicate questions or confrontations for the good of the church and faithful," he said.


Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield