VATICAN CITY — When Pope Benedict XVI returns to his Bavarian homeland later this month, he might feel a little bit like the captain of a triumphant soccer team returning with the World Cup.

Hundreds of thousands of Bavarians are expected to line routes and fill town squares to catch a glimpse of their favorite son. For the Pope himself, it will be a special and moving homecoming.

“It will be a very emotional trip,” says Paul Badde, Rome correspondent of the German daily Die Welt. “It’s an official visit but also a private one to a certain extent — a sentimental journey.”

Much has been packed into the six-day apostolic voyage, which has the motto “Whoever believes is never alone.” It will begin Sept. 9 in Bavaria’s largest city, Munich, and the archdiocese where the Holy Father served as archbishop from 1977-1982.

An estimated 100,000 people and an honor guard will be waiting to greet him when he steps off the papal plane. Germany’s president, Hans Köhler, its chancellor, Angela Merkel, Bavaria’s president, Edmund Stoiber, and the head of the German bishops’ conference, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, will also be there to meet him.

Benedict will then head into Munich in the popemobile to address a crowd in the Marienplatz, the largest square in the city.

A high point of the visit will take place the following day when the Pope celebrates an open-air Mass. More than 250,000 people are expected, after which the Holy Father will have lunch with Cardinal Friedrich Wetter of Munich and Freising, and celebrate vespers in Munich Cathedral.

Germany’s ‘Lourdes

The next morning he will be taken by helicopter to the small Bavarian town of Altötting. Although it has little to do with Benedict’s personal history, the town is home to Germany’s “Lourdes” and the country’s most famous shrine, the Chapel of Mercy.

The chapel houses a 13th-century statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that has been the site of numerous miracles attributed to the Blessed Mother. While there, the Pope will inaugurate a new Eucharistic adoration chapel, celebrate Mass and later vespers with seminarians and religious and then drive on to the town of his birth, Marktl am Inn.

In the evening, the Holy Father will be flown by helicopter to Regensburg, a place of happy memories when he was professor of theology in the city’s university in the 1970s. He will spend three days there, celebrating a large open-air Mass on Sept. 12 with what is expected to be a crowd of 300,000.

Benedict’s other engagements include meeting seminarians and scientists at the university, holding an ecumenical meeting, and spending some time privately with his priest brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger.

On Sept. 14, his final day in Bavaria, the Pope will visit Freising, the town where he studied for the priesthood and was ordained. There he will meet priests and deacons in the city’s cathedral before being driven to Munich airport and leaving for Rome.

Getting Ready

Much careful preparation has gone into the visit.

“It’s been a big operation but we’re very well prepared and we have a lot of support from the police, security and the civic authorities,” said Adelheid Utters-Adam, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.

“The people are very proud to have a German Pope,” she continued, noting that during his more than 20 years living in Rome, the Pope has kept in close contact with his homeland and would visit the region four or five times a year.

“His heart will always be in Bavaria,” Utters-Adam said, “and as he comes from here, and Munich and Freising is his home diocese, it’s important that we make his visit worthwhile.”

For the Holy Father, the aim of the trip is twofold. “The purpose of the visit,” he explained in a recent German television interview, “is precisely because I want to see again the places where I grew up, the people who touched and shaped my life — I want to thank those people.”

But Benedict also wants to take the opportunity to deliver an important message: the need for his countrymen, and the West in general, to return to Christ.

“We have to rediscover God, not just any god, but the God that has a human face, because when we see Jesus Christ, we see God,” he told German television. It is a truth that he will deliver to a Western world that he said is experiencing “a wave of new and drastic enlightenment and secularization.”

‘Watershed Moment’

But reaching out to all of Germany — the birthplace of the Reformation — and the rest of secular Europe won’t be easy. The intense media spotlight he has received since becoming Pope has caused friction, particularly with Protestants.

Being Bavarian is also sometimes an obstacle.

“It’s not completely correct to call Benedict XVI a German,” said Badde. “He’s a Bavarian, and Bavaria has its own distinctively Catholic and Baroque culture that is quite different to the north, which is more agnostic.”

At the same time, signs of rebirth have been emerging in Germany, fostered by both Benedict’s witness and that of Pope John Paul II.

“Interest in the faith has grown among people who had until recently distanced themselves from it — that is clear,” said Utters-Adam. “In our archdiocese, the numbers wanting to be baptized have also grown.”

Even the skeptical German media have given hints of changing their attitude, especially since Benedict became Pope.

“The secular press has suddenly become more interested in the faith while the Church remains agnosticized and followed Protestantism by becoming dry,” said Badde. “You could say we’re at a watershed moment.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.