A Hard Trip Home

Benedict XVI’s Visit to Germany This Month Promises Protests, Surprises

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By Edward Pentin 

ROME, SEPT. 1, 2011 (Zenit.org).- In three weeks’ time, Pope Benedict XVI will begin his first state visit to Germany — an apostolic voyage that promises to be historic, challenging and potentially very fruitful. 

The Sept. 22-25 visit will include a trip to the German capital, Berlin, followed by the towns of Erfurt (in the former East Germany) and Freiburg im Breisgau. The Pope is to celebrate an open air Mass in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, two more such Masses in Erfut and Freiburg, and hold meetings with senior Church figures, seminarians, youth, and the country’s ecumenical and interreligious leaders. His visit will begin with a momentous address to the Federal Parliament in the Reichstag. 

But although relatively short, the trip will be challenging: Secularism has long taken hold in the Holy Father’s homeland (though arguably less so in his native Bavaria) with a minority of priests as well as laity openly expressing dissent from Church teaching. The Church’s woes have been compounded by the sexual abuse crisis that continues to simmer across Germany.

The effects of all of this have been dramatic. According to the latest official Church figures, the number of German Catholics de-registering themselves from their local Catholic church increased by almost 50% last year (181,000 people, up from 124,000). The problem has been made worse partly because, as members of a church, Germans must pay a «Church Tax» and de-registering frees them of this obligation (Catholics continue to make up a significant proportion of the population, however, numbering 24.6 million, or just over 30%).

«Secularism [in Germany] is of course painful to him,» says Paul Badde, the Rome correspondent for the German daily, Die Welt. «He’s coming from a Catholic universe, a Catholic family in a little German Catholic village. It wasn’t an unbroken world, but after 1945 he had to witness it being broken even more through an accelerated process of secularism that began in Germany.» Such an ingrained turning away from the Church, Badde believes, makes this visit «more complicated» than his much publicized state visit to Britain last year — a visit which «was easy game for him in the end.» 

The Berlin leg of the trip is likely to be the most difficult. A city still caught in the hedonistic spirit of the 1960s, it continues to be a focal point for secularist ideologies. A large number of protests have been planned, including a large demonstration during the Pope’s address in the Reichstag. The majority of the protesters will be demonstrating against the Church’s teaching on condom use, abortion and homosexuality. 

However, unlike Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1996 when police were unable to control some of the protesters who pelted the popemobile with paint, the hope is that this time won’t descend into violence and arrests. Berlin’s openly homosexual mayor, Klaus Wowereit, has tried to sound a conciliatory note, extending the Pope an official welcome (although he says he understands those planning to protest, assuming they take place peacefully). 

But protests or not, Badde believes by making a state visit to his homeland, Benedict XVI could put Catholicism «back on the map» in Germany. The European nation, he says, may be the «country of the Reformation,» but it has deep Catholic roots and now a Bavarian Pope is helping Germans reconnect with their long and rich history. «When I first heard he was elected, my first thought was that the [Second World] War was over,» Badde explains. «We had such a great history but it has been reduced to 12 years — 1933 to 1945. But just as he is doing with the Church through his hermeneutic of continuity [his contention that the Second Vatican Council marked no break with tradition], so he is representing the greater history of Germany.» 

But has Benedict XVI changed the view of the Church, and of him, among Germans? Jesuit Father Bernd Hagenkord, director of Vatican Radio’s German section, believes their perception of Joseph Ratzinger and the Church has markedly changed over 30 years. «I grew up in the 1980s as a normal Catholic boy and we thought all things Rome were bad, that they tried to control everything, don’t understand the way we think and live and so on,» he explains, adding that Cardinal Ratzinger was also viewed negatively for his opposition to such issues as liberation theology. 

But he notes that such attitudes have «changed a lot,» and Benedict XVI is perceived as milder and more spiritual than he was before, also during his latter years as cardinal prefect at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. «There was a huge euphoria when he was elected — ‘We Are Pope’ was the headline in the newspapers,» Father Hagenkord recalls. «Now the euphoria has gone but the interest remains, and a lot of people are interested because he has something to say.»

Father Hagenkord continues: «He’s not just a popstar who appears and disappears — only about love, peace and happiness. He’s about content which, normally, you don’t like if you’re a German, but it’s there, it’s challenging and not made up to generate headlines.»

Badde, author of the recent book «The Holy Face of Manoppello,» believes that rather than a minority, a «silent majority» exists in Germany who are actually behind what the Church teaches. And he sees them steadily becoming less silent. «With the Internet we have a phenomenon going on that is not dissimilar to what happened in Egypt — voices are being heard,» he says, «Catholic media used to be in the hands of modernist pressure groups, but this isn’t the case anymore.» 

But both Father Hagenkord and Badde believe this Pope’s real impact on Germany won’t be felt for some years to come. «This is a Pope we’ll speak of in 20-30 years time,» says Father Hagenkord. «He’ll leave a lot of stuff behind, and we’ll pick it up and chew on it again and again.» Still, he doesn’t think the «old Catholic faith we used to know» will ever come back to Germany. «That has gone, so we have to establish a new way of being Catholic,» he says. «The Pope will contribute to this, as will others, in sharpening our identity — what it means to be Catholic.»

Where the Holy Father will possibly have the greatest impact on this trip, however, is in the former East Germany. Father Hagenkord sees fertile ground there, and has seen the Pope communicating effectively to those where Communism all but destroyed Christianity. «You can see genuine interest there, they want to know what this is, how this works, what the Vatican is, a priest, a bishop, as they don’t know very much anymore,» he explained. «They want to hear, discuss — they’re not imprisoned by the conflicts we always have in western Germany such as the ordination of women, celibacy, obedience.» 

This is partly why, to some people’s surprise, a former East German communist-turned-leftist politician heaped praise on Benedict XVI last month. Gregor Gysi thanked the Pope for consistently preaching that a modern society must have moral norms in order to function properly, according to Reuters. Gysi, a reformist lawyer in the final years of former East Germany, also noted with approval that Benedict has said religions without reason can lead to fanaticism, while rational thinking without faith can lead to excessive pride and intolerance.

Just the first of what some believe could be a number of unexpected welcome developments during this historic visit to a country obviously close to the Pope’s heart, but also at the center of Europe’s secularist-Christian tensions. 

«There will be surprises, certainly,» says Badde, «surprises for Germans and for the world.»

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