Benedict’s Homecoming Touches Bavarian Hearts and Minds

MUNICH, Germany — “One could use so many superlatives to describe it that there would be none left to use,” said Cardinal Friedrich Wetter of Munich and Freising.

Clearly delighted with Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, the Bavarian cardinal described the papal visit to reporters as “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”

For the Pope himself, speaking at Munich airport as he departed Sept. 14 under the hot sun that had remained with him all the way from Rome, it was a very emotional homecoming.

“I was deeply moved by the enthusiasm and fervent devotion of the faithful who gathered to listen to the Word of God and to join in prayer,” he said. “God be with you, land of the Bavarian people, German soil, my native land!” he said in closing. “Upon your vast borders may his hand rest in blessing!”

As a parting word of advice, the Holy Father suggested Germans would benefit from taking a new look at Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), which was published on the same day 25 years ago.

On this trip, Benedict had two goals: Thanking those who had influenced and helped him in the land of his birth, and communicating the Gospel in a way that will help his skeptical German countrymen rediscover the faith of their ancestors.

Observers suggested he had accomplished both objectives.

“Even for those who are not spiritual, I am convinced this visit will have lasting and deep effect,” Cardinal Wetter said.

Edmund Stoiber, Minister President of the German state of Bavaria, said the visit “far exceeded all expectations.”

Benedict clearly enjoyed the opportunity to visit his native Bavaria as Pope.

“Among all of us who have known and worked with him over the years, we’ve noticed that he feels much freer than before,” said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who accompanied the Pope for part of his journey. “Happy is perhaps not the right word, but you can feel that he enjoys being the shepherd of his flock.”


But while attention was naturally focused on him during the trip, Benedict sought throughout his apostolic voyage to redirect that attention toward Jesus.

At his first open-air Mass in Munich Sept. 10 he spoke of how important it is to listen to Jesus in order to be healed. The following day, in Altötting, the place of Germany’s best-known and most-visited Marian shrine, he referred to Mary as the best example of how to listen to Christ and to do his will.

“Mary gave over everything to the Lord,” he said. “She taught us how to pray; not to do our will but to turn our will over to the will of God.”

Added Benedict, “Mary and Jesus belong together. With her, we want to stay in conversation with the Lord and so better receive from him and learn from him.”

Almost every available space in Altötting’s small town square was filled with pilgrims, who gave the Pope a colorful and rousing welcome with yellow-white-and-blue scarves and flags.

As bells rang out, the Holy Father made a long walk around the square and spent some time praying to the miraculous statue of the Black Madonna.

“He probably has his most personal memories here, the place of his childhood and his family,” Bishop Wilhelm Schraml of Passau told the Register. “After the war, he went with his father on a pilgrimage from Traunstein to Altötting because his father wanted to give thanks that his two sons, Joseph and Georg, had returned safely from the war. These are very personal memories that have an important place in his heart.”

While Benedict’s visit to Altötting coincided with the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he did not refer to them explicitly in his Marian-focused homily. And leading procession after Mass, he carried a monstrance in a gesture conveying the spiritual lesson that the answers to all human problems are found in the body of Jesus.

“The message was very deep because it was about prayer and listening to the will of God,” said Cardinal Schönborn. “Without mentioning Sept. 11, he gave a very profound message for the way out, and we’re all desperately looking for a way out.”

Marktl am Inn

From Altötting, the Holy Father made a fleeting visit to Marktl am Inn, the idyllic Bavarian hamlet where he was born.

For many of the 2,700 inhabitants, the visit was a monumental event. Onlookers crowded doorways and leaned out of windows to catch a glimpse of their very special fellow townsmen. Vatican flags filled the streets and draped the walls of houses.

The Pope spent only his first two years in Marktl am Inn, where he was born on the Easter Vigil of 1927. On a previous visit there as a cardinal, he remarked fondly that it “has something very warm and friendly about it.”

During this visit, he spent 15 minutes in St. Oswald’s Church, praying together with his brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger at the font where he was baptized. A short drive in the popemobile then took him to the house of his birth.

Looking relaxed and in good humor, the Holy Father made a short walk, waving to a delighted crowd and admiring a monument created in his honor. The visit was the shortest but also perhaps the most poignant of the trip.


The Holy Father then flew to Regensburg, where on Sept. 12 he celebrated his third open-air Mass of his visit at the enormous Islinger Field on the town’s outskirts.

Before the Mass, his Mercedes popemobile crept slowly around the crowd of 260,000 pilgrims, arriving at the foot of the altar to wild cheers, applause and chants of “Ben-e-det-to!”

Once lowered from the popemobile, Benedict XVI climbed the steps of the altar, where he was greeted by an array of bishops and cardinals from all over the world. The specially composed processional hymn “Wer Glaubt Ist Nie Allein” (“Whoever believes is never alone”) — the motto of his pilgrimage — boomed through loudspeakers.

Like every town on the papal itinerary, Regensburg came to a standstill. Most citizens took the day off work; Bavarian schoolchildren were given an extra day’s vacation.

In his homily, the Holy Father centered on the need to come to know God as he really is, and not as an entity stripped of many of his divine attributes through a rationalistic, scientific analysis.

“It is important to state clearly the God in whom we believe, to proclaim confidently that this God has a human face,” he said. “Only this can free us from being afraid of God — which ultimately is at the root of modern atheism.”

“He wants to give everyone the courage to begin again the dialogue between faith and reason,” Father Paulus Terwitte, a Capuchin friar from Frankfurt, said after the Mass. “And he is showing to bishops and priests how they have to preach — this is the most important aspect in my view.”

Father Terwitte said the Pope was indicating an effective way to evangelize in cultures like Germany, where many people think that belief in God is “abnormal.”

Benedict amplified on the same theme in his talk to scientists at the University of Regensburg on the evening of Sept. 12, in an address that many regarded as the most significant of his visit.

The speech gave the Pope, a famed theologian before becoming a bishop, a chance to become a professor once again, placing a mortarboard atop his papal skullcap and delivering a lecture rather than a homily.

Faith cannot exist without reason, and vice-versa, the Holy Father emphasized in his remarks to his academic audience. But the contemporary dependence on science has led to a false notion of a God without reason, he said.

Such an intellectual diminishing of God, which strips Christian theology from its Greek intellectual roots, compromises humanity’s capacity for moral judgment and ethics, Benedict said. It also gives rise to a false understanding of God as a subjective being with an arbitrary will.

Ultimately, the Pope said, this scientific rationalism leads to the exclusion of God from everyday life — an exclusion that less rationalistic cultures find threatening.

“The world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions,” he said. “A reason that is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion in the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into dialogue with cultures.”

Remarks on Islam

In his remarks at the University of Regensburg, Benedict also offered a critique of some aspects of Islam. He said that the Muslim religion views Allah as being so great as to render him incomprehensible and unknowable, and seemingly beyond reason.

This perception of God opens the door to the justification of acts of violence committed in his name, such as jihad (holy war), Benedict argued.

“Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul,” he said.

Much of the world’s media — and many Islamic leaders — subsequently interpreted the Pope’s University of Regensburg speech as a direct attack on Islam. In fact, however, the Pope’s references to Islam, which drew upon a 15th-century conversation between a Byzantine emperor and a learned Persian elder, were made primarily to illustrate the dangers of the contemporary Western dismissal of God as scientifically unknowable and therefore beyond reason.

“It is the crisis of identity in the West, in particular in Europe, that is the true cause that provokes a clash of civilizations — a thesis the Pope has already expressed,” Italian Sen. Marcello Pera, co-author with Benedict of a book about Europe’s spiritual crisis, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera Sept. 14.



The final stop of Benedict’s journey was in Freising, the small town just outside Munich where he was ordained a priest 45 years ago.

Arriving slightly ahead of schedule Sept. 14 from Regensburg after a second day spent in private in that city, the Pope drove slowly through Freising to cheers and chants of his name.

Once he had passed by, children scampered down side alleys to catch up with him again as he doubled back and climbed the hill to the ancient church.

Speaking there to priests, deacons and seminarians, the Holy Father spoke optimistically about a resurgence in vocations.

“The fundamental approach of Jesus,” he said, “is one of optimism, based on the confidence in the power of the Father, the ‘Lord of the harvest.’”

The key to inspiring more vocations, he said, is through remaining in “intimate communion with the Lord of the harvest.”

Overall, Benedict’s warm Bavarian reception came as a surprise to some Germans. For more than two decades while he served in Rome as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was frequently the target of vitriolic media attacks for his alleged doctrinal “conservatism.”

 But during his homecoming, Müncheners flocked out in force.

In a survey carried out for Bavarian television, 69% of Bavarians said their faith was helped by the papal visit. Among Bavarian Catholics, 72% said their faith received a boost; among Protestants, the figure was even higher at 74%.

In another sign of the universality of the Pope’s welcome, predicted protests failed to materialize. The only moment of trouble occurred when a male teenager broke free from the crowd during the open-air Mass in Regensburg and ran towards the Pope.

The youth ran to within 100 yards of the Holy Father before he was tackled by security guards. Afterward, police released the teen — described in the German press as a “Pope fanatic” who was desperate to get as close as possible to the Holy Father — with merely a caution.

As Benedict flew back to Rome in a plane piloted by one of his former students, a sudden shift in the weather symbolized the feelings of many Bavarians about departure of their homegrown Pope. Just minutes after his take-off, the unbroken sunshine and clear blue skies that had accompanied the Pope’s visit gave way to clouds.

Edward Pentin

is based in Rome.