Germany United by the Pope

Pope Benedict XVI's state visit to Germany was an intense four-day trip that put the Holy Father's intellectual prowess on display.

FREIBURG IM BREISGAU — Pope Benedict’s visit to Germany wasn’t quite the triumph to match his state visit to Britain last year, when his presence silenced many of his critics.

But among Church officials and many of the faithful, the third trip to his homeland as Pope — and his first state visit — greatly exceeded expectations. The Pope flew back to Rome Sept. 25, bringing to an end a very intense four days.

From the rousing welcomes he received from a total of 300,000 faithful who traveled to see him to the spontaneous standing ovation given him in the German parliament, his reception was significantly better than many had predicted.

But the Pope made it clear from the outset that his visit wasn’t to be a “sensational event,” nor did he want it politicized. Rather, he had come to his native land simply “to meet people and to speak about God.”

With his usual clarity and erudition, the Pope quickly set about this task, delving into the deep problems facing German (and Western) society, such as its “growing indifference to religion,” its “exaggerated individualism” and misplaced conception of freedom and responsibility.

Time and again, he stressed that faith needs to be shared. He encouraged the faithful to abide with Christ and his Church despite the sins and scandals of its members. He reminded them that humility is a prerequisite for unity and called on Catholics to “resolutely set aside worldliness” so her missionary witness “shines more brightly.” He highlighted that although the German Church is “superbly organized,” it still needs something more, namely an openness to the love of Christ.

In short, this was vintage Joseph Ratzinger: discourses clearly originating from his own hand and filled with appeals to return to the fundamentals of the faith, “to the heart of the Good News of Christ.”

“This visit has demonstrated that the Christian belief is something which relates to today’s society, and this was evident in some of the speeches of the Holy Father, in the people he met, and overall in the emotional presence of the flock,” Jesuit Father Hans Langendorfer, chief coordinator of the visit, told the Register Sept. 25. “This was wonderful, and it made the Pope feel good. He’s very content.”

Benedict XVI’s historic address to the German parliament in Berlin Sept. 22 stunned even some of his ideological opponents. Clearly written by himself, he emphasized the importance of the “natural law” tradition (the belief that innate laws found in nature and man come from God). This teaching has given the West its laws, human rights and belief in social justice, Benedict reaffirmed, and yet he said it has been all but eclipsed by an overemphasis on scientific enquiry, or “positivist reason.”

Politics, the Holy Father reminded the legislators, must, above all, be a “striving for justice” or, as happened in Nazi Germany, the state risks becoming “a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.” The inviolability of human dignity and the idea of personal responsibility, he reaffirmed, derive from the idea of a Creator.

More than 50 legislators boycotted the speech over church-state concerns and in protest over Church teaching, but it was described by some of those present as “brilliant” and a “masterpiece.” His sincere emphasis on having a “listening heart,” and his genuinely held view that the green movement (often the most vocally opposed to the Church) is actually a chief witness to the failures produced by a purely positivist approach to the world, were masterstrokes. “Not completely without cunning,” commented Die Welt newspaper, “the Pope has given notice to the members of the Bundestag of their responsibility to freedom.”

Other high points included the Pope’s meeting with Muslim leaders in which he appealed to them to come together with the Church to defend life from birth to death. He suggested to them a model, based on the Federal German constitution, which could uphold religious freedom for minorities in Muslim-majority states. 

To Jewish leaders, he recalled that Nazism showed what people are capable of when they deny God. The seemingly “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.”

In Erfurt, a city in the former East Germany, he praised those who stood fast to the faith in the face of Nazism and communism that “acted on the Christian faith like acid rain.” Also there, the Pope made history when he became the first Successor of Peter to visit the Augustinian monastery of Martin Luther. A high point for the Holy Father, he prayed for Christian unity and used the opportunity to appeal to mainstream Christian denominations not to water down the faith. He also invited them to respond collectively to deal with the growth of Protestant sects: “What is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse?” he asked.

At the Erfurt seminary, the Pope met with five sex-abuse victims, an encounter that left him “moved and deeply shaken.” 

Meeting Orthodox leaders the following day, he encouraged a “common engagement” to “oppose vigorously every manipulative and selective intervention in the area of human life” and singled out defense of marriage and the family as a main concern. “It was a very well-received speech,” said Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Seraphim of Western and Central Europe. “He was friendly, and he’s very clever and compassionate.”

Noticeable during this trip was the large number of youth. At a prayer vigil for young pilgrims in Freiburg, the Pope encouraged each of them to be a “light for the world” and to dare to be saints. Such messages of hope, drawing on the example of German saints, were frequent during this visit, consistent with the visit’s motto: “Where God is, there is a future.”

Much of the German media recognized this and respected Benedict XVI as a man “genuinely in search of God.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung even published some of the Pope’s speeches in full, while the popular Bild newspaper said that “never before has the “Wir Sind Papst” [a phrase meaning “We are Pope,” which appeared in a German headline when the Pope was elected] feeling been more real in his homeland than today.”

Not everyone was happy, of course: The Suddeutsche Zeitung joined others in criticizing him for not specifically mentioning contentious issues in the German Church, such as priestly celibacy, homosexuality and the role of women. Nor, they pointed out, did he mention the Church’s own internal injustices.

But as the German daily Die Zeit wrote in a Sept. 26 editorial, this visit went far beyond such specific issues.

“This Pope has led us to debate not merely the financial crises and the most recent wars,” it said, “but to occasionally ask: Where do we come from, and where do we want to go?

“That’s a lot,” it said. “That’s basically everything.”

Edward Pentin filed this report from Germany. For more coverage, go to