BERLIN — As the papal plane touched down Sept. 22, slightly ahead of schedule on a sunny and breezy autumn morning in Berlin, the atmosphere was a palpable mix of trepidation and eager anticipation.

The Pope’s first state visit to his increasingly secular homeland, the “country of the Reformation,” drew a good deal of controversy in the months preceding it. Would this nation, which has long struggled to understand the Catholic faith, welcome him with warmth and respect?

As if to show how much the Christian faith is being sidelined by the German people, one national newspaper listed the backgrounds of the key dignitaries welcoming him to Berlin: a divorced and remarried Catholic president, an evangelical Lutheran chancellor in her second marriage, a practicing homosexual Catholic mayor of Berlin, and a Catholic president of the parliament who last year urged German bishops to pressure the Vatican to end priestly celibacy (it could also be argued these cases urgently demanded a papal visit).

For those not actively hostile, the mood among most Berlin citizens was one of “benevolent indifference.” And apart from a few Vatican flags erected by state authorities, and a large police presence, there was little to suggest the Successor of Peter was about to visit the city.

But in a replay of his state visit to Britain last year, any doubts and anxiety quickly evaporated, giving way to smiles, warm welcomes and even a standing ovation.

“This has been a really good start,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists in the afternoon. “The atmosphere has been very positive.” And as in London last September, planned protests were minimal, drawing far fewer than the 20,000 predicted in mainstream media reports.

On arrival at Bellevue Castle, the president’s official residence, the Holy Father was applauded enthusiastically. President Christian Wulff greeted the Pope with deference, praising the Church for its efforts in helping the poorest and weakest and emphasizing the important role Christian churches have in society, especially in these times of economic and ecological crisis.

In his address, the Pope immediately set out the purpose of this state visit. “I have not come here primarily to pursue particular political or economic goals, as other statesmen rightly do,” he said, “but, rather, to meet people and to speak about God.”

Noting “a growing indifference to religion in society,” he spoke about the importance of true freedom and responsibility that have their origins in a “higher instance.” Today’s federal Germany, he stressed, exists “thanks to the power of freedom shaped by responsibility before God and before one another.”

During his airborne press conference on the papal plane, the Pope played down protests against the visit, saying the German people are in growing need of “a moral voice” in society, and, for this reason, he was going “with joy to my Germany, and I am happy to bring the message of Christ to my homeland.”

But it was his much anticipated historic address to the German parliament that drew widest acclaim. The keynote address was more of a lecture on political ethics, stressing the importance of the Church’s “natural law” tradition that has been all but eclipsed by positivism (the philosophical theory that science is the best approach to uncovering the origins of physical and human processes).

The Pope reminded those present that politics must, above all, “be a striving for justice.”  But he argued that an over-emphasis on scientific inquiry is framing religion as merely subjective. This is despite the fact that systems of law have “almost always been based on religion” and that Christianity has pointed to natural law (nature and reason) “as true sources of law.”

This over-emphasis of “positivist reason” has put the dignity of man and of humanity at stake, the Pope said. He suggested that the yonger generation’s strong interest in environmental issues signalled the limitations of the positivist position. Indeed, there is also an “ecology of man” whose nature must be respected, and this, the Pope argued, points to the natural law — a set of norms originating from a Creator God.

“The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of equality before the law, the inviolability of human dignity in every single person, and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions,” the Pope continued. He warned that to ignore or dismiss this heritage as a “thing of the past” would be to “dismember our culture totally and rob it of its completeness.” In the awareness of “man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgement of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law,” he said. “It is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.”

On concluding his speech, the parliamentarians gave him a two-minute standing ovation. The parliamentarians who promised to boycott the speech were fewer than expected, and only one Green Party member of parliament walked out while he was speaking. Andrea Nahles, a practicing Catholic of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), said he was “very impressed” by the Pope’s speech, which he thought was “clever.”

Some thought it was too highbrow: One Green Party legislator said it would have been “very appropriate for Humboldt University [Berlin’s oldest university].” Another was upset because he said “nothing about ecumenism, celibacy, women priests or the Church’s attitude to sexual issues.”

But Rainer Bruederle, head of the ruling coalition’s Free Democratic Party, welcomed the speech as “an important support” for politics, which “strengthened the basis for responsible action, based on the inner foundations of democracy and the rule of law.” The Pope, Bruederle said, “brilliantly” put this across in “clear, simple lines, making it clear and understandable for everyone.”

Meeting Jewish representatives in the Reichstag afterwards, the Pope expressed appreciation for the fruits of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. He also decried the brutal legacy and neo-pagan values of Adolf Hitler, offering the German dictator as an example of what happens when man tries to usurp God.

“The supposedly ‘almighty’ Adolf Hitler was a pagan idol,” he said, “who wanted to take the place of the biblical God, the Creator and Father of all men.”

The day ended with yet another rapturous reception at an open-air Mass in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. Filled almost to capacity with 61,000 faithful, the Pope used his homily to encourage the faithful to remain attached to the vine — Christ and his Church — despite the problems that beset the body of the Church. “In such times of hardship, we can sometimes feel as if we ourselves were in the winepress, like grapes being utterly crushed,” the Pope said. “But we know that if we are joined to Christ we become mature wine. God can transform into love even the burdensome and oppressive aspects of our lives. It is important that we ‘abide’ in Christ, in the vine.”

The Pope spoke to Germany’s Muslim representatives as well.

The Pope travels to Erfurt Friday, Sept. 23, a town in the former communist East Germany where the Protestant reformer Martin Luther trained to be a priest. The Holy Father has said this opportunity to strengthen ecumenical relations is a “central point” of this visit to Germany. (See his address here).

Rome correspondent Edward Pentin is with Pope Benedict on his apostolic voyage to Germany. He filed this report from Berlin.