Pope Benedict Travels Home to Germany to Combat Secularism

Theme of Sept. 22-25 Trip: ‘Where God Is, There the Future Is’

(photo: CNA photo)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI embarks on a visit to Germany Sept. 22-25, the third visit to his homeland since he was elected Pope.

The four-day apostolic voyage begins in Berlin, followed by the cities of Erfurt, in the former East Germany (and also where Martin Luther was ordained a priest), and Freiburg im Breisgau, near the Swiss-German border. 

This will be a state visit, and, in accordance with protocol, the Holy Father is scheduled to give a historic address to the Federal Parliament in the Reichstag, an event which is eagerly anticipated but has drawn strong opposition from some anti-Church politicians.

Indeed, his visit to the German capital is likely to be the most difficult leg of the trip. 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 to coincide with his address, mainly concerning the Church’s teaching on condom use, abortion and homosexuality. The hope is that the protesters won’t turn violent, as they surprisingly did when John Paul II visited the city in 1996.

In face of the opposition, Martin Lohmann, spokesman for the Catholic Caucus in Germany’s ruling CDU Party, said in a published report Sept. 12 he was “amazed how much potential for intolerance lies dormant among the apostles for tolerance,” only to appear when religious leaders visit the country. He warned any politician who decides to be absent from the Pope’s speech “ultimately betrays an incredible fear of truth and clarity.”

According to the general coordinator of the Pope’s trip, Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, the Pope is likely to remind the German people that faith must “not be forced into the private sphere, reminding them that religion has an important contribution to make to society.” He is also expected to underline “the continuity of state-church relations” in Germany and give his backing to a “more dynamic” unity in Europe.

In a Sept. 12 interview with Morgenweb, an online German newspaper, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, president of the German bishops’ conference, said he believes the Holy Father will take the opportunity during his parliamentary address to underline “the meaning of the Christian roots of our country and our continent” and stress that the values of “social justice, solidarity, charity, the value of human life in all its phases” grow from the Gospel.

After a series of state ceremonies in Berlin, which will culminate in an open-air Mass in the city’s Olympic Stadium, the trip will then take on a more pastoral feel, when the Pope visits Erfurt and Freiburg im Breisgau. Benedict XVI will celebrate Masses in both cities and also be holding meetings with senior Church figures, seminarians, youth and the country’s ecumenical and interreligious leaders. The motto for the visit is: “Where God is, there the future is.”

But even away from Berlin getting his message across will be challenging: Secularism has long taken hold in Germany (though arguably less so in his native Bavaria), with a declining birth rate and a minority of priests and laity openly expressing dissent from Church teaching. The Church’s woes have been compounded by the sexual-abuse crisis leading to a dramatic fall in Church membership (de-registrations from the Church increased 50% last year).

The Pope’s meeting with ecumenical leaders in Erfurt, with its close association with Luther, is being billed as historic. Archbishop Zollitsch said he was pleased the Pope has allotted a good deal of time to meet the heads of Protestant churches and that the Pope was “very interested” in the discussions that will take place there.

On clerical sex abuse, the German Church has made substantial reforms to prevent it and to help the victims.

“Of all the institutions in Germany, we have done the most,” Archishop Zollitsch said, adding that it “wouldn’t be helpful” if the theme of abuse dominated the visit. Although unconfirmed, a meeting with abuse victims looks likely; the archbishop said it would be “clarified” at a later date.

One particularly unusual excursion for the Holy Father will be to the small former East German town of Etzelsbach, where the Pope will honor a people that spent many years behind the Iron Curtain. The town has a famous shrine that has been attracting pilgrims since the 16th century.

“It’s a tiny place, not really a town, but more of a hamlet in the countryside; and he’ll go and celebrate vespers there,” Jesuit Father Bernd Hagenkord, director of the German section of Vatican Radio, said. “He’s honoring their rich history, which I like very much.”

Father Hagenkord and others believe the Holy Father is expected to have the greatest impact in the former East Germany. Years of communist rule there have been replaced by a hunger and curiosity for the faith, even among some who retain leftist ideologies. The citizens are also “not bound by the conflicts such as the ordination of women, celibacy and obedience” that afflict the Church in western Germany, said Father Hagenkord. He, therefore, believes it could prove to be “fertile ground” for evangelization.

Although from West Germany, the Pope nevertheless had contact with the communist east, though not always in a way he would have preferred.  A local radio station, Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk Thüringen, revealed on Sept. 11 that the Stasi, the former East German secret service, had numerous unofficial agents tracking Joseph Ratzinger’s movements after he made a visit to Thüringen (of which Erfurt is the capital) in 1974.

That Joseph Ratzinger was spied upon — just as the secret police in communist Poland spied on Karol Wojtyla — is already known, but the latest documents give more details on the spying activities. As professor Ratzinger became more prominent, the foreign section of the homeland security service assigned “at least a dozen unofficial employees” to track him and file reports on his whereabouts.

They included two East German university professors and two general secretaries from the East Berlin bishops’ conference. In West Germany, even a Benedictine monk from Trier and several journalists were enlisted to inform on him, the report stated.

Documents show that the Stasi tried to conjure up a negative image of Joseph Ratzinger, describing him as “reactionary” and “authoritarian.” But they also praised his “high intelligence” and made another positive observation: “Although he would be shy at first with an interlocutor,” an agent wrote, “he possesses a winning charm.”

Rome correspondent Edward Pentin will be in Germany to cover the Pope during his visit.