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Special Report
November 01, 2011
In late September, Pope Benedict XVI visited his homeland, urging Germans to restore God to the center of life.
Appearing on a German television show on September 19, Pope Benedict XVI said that during a September 22-25 visit to his native country, he would bring a simple but challenging message: “We must rediscover our capacity to perceive God.”

The Pope told the German audience of the Word on Sunday (Das Wort zum Sonntag) show that he was looking forward to his visit. “This is not religious tourism; still less is it a ‘show,’” he said. The purpose of the visit, he said, was to convey the message: “We must restore God to our horizon—the God who is so often absent but of whom we have such great need.”

The Pope’s preview of his visit contrasted with the angry, partisan tone of political opponents in Germany. One hundred members of opposition parties announced that they would boycott the Pope’s speech to the German parliament as a protest against Church policies.

The threatened boycott failed to impress the Pope’s supporters. “That is so small-minded that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry,” said Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne. “And the fact that they sit in parliament does not leave a positive mark on the noble representation of the German people.” Leading German politicians also chastised their colleagues. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said that the boycott was a display of “arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and provincialism.” Deputy Speaker Wolfgang Thierse observed: “No deputy who listens has to agree with the Pope’s views.”

Downplays confrontation

In a question-and-answer session with journalists who accompanied him on his September 22 flight to Berlin, Pope Benedict sought to ease tensions about potential confrontations with his German critics and, more generally, about alienation among German Catholics.

The Pope told reporters that he was approaching his visit to his native land “with great joy,” despite the heavy publicity that had been given to the public protests organized against him. Such demonstrations, he said, are “quite natural” in a free society. While his critics have a right to voice their opinions, the Pope observed, many more people would greet him warmly and join him in liturgical celebrations.

Regarding the large number of Catholics who have left the Church in recent months, the Pope said that he understood the toll taken by the “terrible scandals” the Church has suffered. He said that pastors now face the challenge of helping people “learn to withstand even these scandals and work against these scandals from the inside.”

In answer to a question about ecumenical relations, the Pontiff said that he looked forward to a meeting with Protestant leaders in Erfurt, at the monastery where Martin Luther began his work. In an age of growing secularism, he said, Christians must share a common witness. “Thus, even although we are not institutionally united, we are united in our faith in Christ, in the Holy Trinity, and in man made in the image of God. And it is essential in this historic moment to show the world this unity.”

Setting the tone

As he began his four-day visit, Pope Benedict reiterated the theme that he had stressed during his television appearance earlier in the month, saying simply that he had come “to meet people and speak about God.”

In the days leading up to the Pope’s arrival, media coverage had focused almost obsessively on protests against the Catholic Church in general and the Pope in particular. But few protesters were in evidence during the first day of the Pope’s visit, while more than 70,000 people gathered with the Pope for an evening Mass. For his part, the Pontiff did not dodge the public controversy, but chose to address it obliquely.

Pope Benedict appeared to be emotionally moved when German President Christian Wulff—who welcomed him at Tegel airport, along with Chancellor Angela Merkel—said: “Welcome home, Holy Father!”

Wulff observed that in today’s Germany, “Christian belief is no longer a foregone conclusion.” In his own remarks at the airport welcoming ceremony, the Pope acknowledged: “We are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society, which considers the issue of truth as something of an obstacle in its decision-making, and instead gives priority to utilitarian considerations.” However, he argued, that approach is misguided: “The fact that there are values which are not absolutely open to manipulation is the true guarantee of our freedom.”

The Pope quickly set the tone for his visit, speaking about the need for clear moral principles as the basis for a free society. He said that Germany “has become what it is today thanks to the power of freedom shaped by responsibility before God and before one another.”

From the airport, the papal motorcade proceeded into Berlin, where the Holy Father met privately with President Wulff at the presidential residence, then with Chancellor Merkel at the headquarters of the German bishops’ conference.

At the Bundestag, a seminal speech

In a speech that afternoon before the German parliament, the Bundestag, the Pontiff gave a powerful defense of the natural-law tradition, and an equally powerful critique of moral relativism, drawing a hearty standing ovation from the lawmakers. The Holy Father said that the Nazi regime illustrated how a government that does not recognize objective standards of justice can become a nightmarish regime.

“Without justice, what else is the state but a great band of robbers?” the Pope asked, citing the words of St. Augustine. He continued: “We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty specter. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the state became an instrument for destroying right—a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.”

At the opening of his address, the Pope said that he wanted to offer “some thoughts on the foundations of a free state of law.” The work of a politician, the Pope said, cannot be aimed simply at a successful career. He reminded his audience of the example of King Solomon, who asked God for the gift of wisdom in judgment. “Through this story,” the Pope said, “the Bible wants to tell us what should ultimately matter for a politician. His fundamental criterion and the motivation for his work as a politician must not be success, and certainly not material gain. Politics must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace.”

Justice, the Pontiff continued, cannot always be ensured by a demographic vote:

For most of the matters that need to be regulated by law, the support of the majority can serve as a sufficient criterion. Yet it is evident that for the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough.

The Pope observed that this point is illustrated by our admiration for the resistance movements that fought against the tyranny of the Nazi regime and other inhumane governments, “thereby doing a great service to justice and to humanity as a whole. For these people, it was indisputably evident that the law in force was actually unlawful.”

Pope Benedict went on to explain the Church’s support for the natural-law tradition: a tradition that also has roots in Greek philosophy. He said:

Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed body of law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law.

The tradition of government based on the fundamental principles of natural law has been the basic foundation for the legal system of Germany and other European nations, the Pope said. However, that tradition is now imperiled:

The idea of natural law is today viewed as a specifically Catholic doctrine, not worth bringing into the discussion in a non-Catholic environment, so that one feels almost ashamed even to mention the term.

In the absence of natural-law reasoning, the Pope observed, politicians find it impossible to discern clear and objective standards of justice. Consequently, he said, there is a widespread perception “that an unbridgeable gulf exists between ‘is’ and ‘ought.’” Positivism, with its insistence that reason cannot bridge the gap between facts and values, undermines the tradition on which society is built.

The Pope warned the German lawmakers:

Where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity. I say this with Europe specifically in mind…. with the result that Europe vis-À-vis other world cultures is left in a state of culturelessness and at the same time extremist and radical movements emerge to fill the vacuum.

“Together against the storm”

In the evening the Pope presided at an outdoor Mass in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. In his homily the Pope reflected on what it means for the faithful “to live as branches of Christ, the true vine, and to bring forth rich fruit.” After speaking about the importance of life in Christ, the Pontiff again spoke candidly about the widespread disaffection from the Church in Germany:

Many people see only the outward form of the Church. This makes the Church appear as merely one of the many organizations within a democratic society, whose criteria and laws are then applied to the task of evaluating and dealing with such a complex entity as the ‘Church.’ If to this is added the sad experience that the Church contains both good and bad fish, wheat and darnel, and if only these negative aspects are taken into account, then the great and deep mystery of the Church is no longer seen.

Later in his homily, the Pope underlined the need for Christians to cling to the Church in times of trouble:

In our era of restlessness and lack of commitment, when so many people lose their way and their grounding, when loving fidelity in marriage and friendship has become so fragile and short-lived, when in our need we cry out like the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Lord, stay with us, for it is almost evening and darkness is all around us!” (cf. Luke 24:29), then the risen Lord gives us a place of refuge, a place of light, hope, and confidence, a place of rest and security.

The Church, the Pope reminded the massive congregation, is one body, whose members support each other. “They stand firm together against the storm and they offer one another protection.”

Outreach to Jews, Muslims—and abuse victims

Pope Benedict met separately with Jewish and Muslim leaders during the first 24 hours of his pastoral visit to Germany. He met with representatives of the German Jewish community in Berlin on Thursday afternoon, September 22. Then he welcomed Muslim leaders at the residence of the apostolic nuncio on Friday morning, September 23, before leaving for Erfurt. “The Church feels a great closeness to the Jewish people,” the Pope said at the first meeting. “For Christians, there can be no rupture in salvation history,” he continued. “Salvation comes from the Jews.” The Pope went on to explain that the Sermon on the Mount does not abolish the Law of Moses, but “reveals its hidden possibilities and allows more radical demands to emerge.”

The Pope expressed his pleasure at the fact that “Jewish life is now blossoming in Germany,” after years of difficult recovery from the Holocaust. He reflected on the immense suffering of the Jewish people during the Nazi era, saying: “What man is capable of when he rejects God, and what the face of a people can look like when it denies this God, the terrible images from the concentration camps at the end of the war showed.”

The next morning, in meeting with the representatives of Germany’s 4.5-million strong Muslim population, the Pope emphasized the importance of religious freedom, and sought to make common cause with Muslims against secularization. Pointing out that many Muslims “attribute great importance to the religious dimension of life,” the Pope said that Christians should sympathize.

Such emphasis on the value of faith is not common in modern secular society, the Pontiff said: “At times this is thought provocative in a society that tends to marginalize religion or at most to assign it a place among the individual’s personal choices.” Christians and Muslims alike should insist that Germany maintain the respect for religious freedom that is guaranteed in its fundamental laws, he said.

The Pope met with victims of sexual abuse during the second day of his visit. Following what has become a pattern in his foreign travels, the Pope met with the victims quietly, without prior notice; the afternoon meeting was not listed on the schedule for the Pope’s four-day visit. Participants at the meeting reported that the Pontiff was visibly moved by hearing the experiences of the victims.

Differing media perspectives

The world’s major media outlets offered differing perspectives on the first hours of Pope Benedict’s visit, with many reporters suggesting that the Pontiff had been successful in drawing attention away from the protests that had dominated news coverage before his arrival.

In Germany Der Spiegel said that the Pope had caught his audience off guard with his sometimes blunt remarks, and said this approach “could transform his visit into a rousing success.” An AP overview on the second day of the Pope’s visit relegated the ubiquitous protests to the last paragraph of a balanced report. A striking contrast to the generally positive coverage appeared in the New York Times, which gave enormous prominence to the Pope’s critics and barely mentioned what the Pontiff himself had said. The Pope’s profound address to the German parliament, which drew a standing ovation from the lawmakers, was lightly dismissed as “comments that verged at times on the academic.”

The ecumenical imperative

It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of Sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds.

That was the message of Pope Benedict to an ecumenical gathering on September 23. The Pontiff went on to say that the “great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground.”

Ecumenism was the main theme for the second day of the Pope’s visit to Germany, which he spent in Erfurt, the city where Martin Luther was ordained as an Augustinian monk and began his ecclesiastical work.

Pope Benedict began his day in Erfurt by visiting the city’s cathedral, where he venerated the relics of St. Boniface, the “apostle to the Germans.” Next he traveled to the nearby Monastery of St. Augustine, where he met with leaders of the German Evangelical Church Council, a group representing about 24 million Lutheran faithful.

The Pope told the group that the ecumenical project—the drive to provide a common witness to the Gospel of Christ—faces two major problems today. The first is the rise of new Protestant denominations, which offer only “a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.” The second is the secularization of the modern world. “God is increasingly being driven out of our society,” the Pope remarked, “and the history of revelation that Scripture recounts to us seems locked into an ever more remote past.”

Later in the day the Pope joined about 300 people, including leaders of several Protestant groups, in an ecumenical service held in the church of the monastery that had been Luther’s home. There he again underlined the urgency of the ecumenical task:

Ever anew he must endure the rejection of unity, yet ever anew unity takes place with him and thus with the triune God. We need to see both things: the sin of human beings, who reject God and withdraw within themselves, but also the triumphs of God, who upholds the Church despite her weakness, constantly drawing men and women closer to himself and thus to one another. For this reason, in an ecumenical gathering, we ought not only to regret our divisions and separations, but we should also give thanks to God for all the elements of unity which he has preserved for us and bestows on us ever anew. And this gratitude must be at the same time a resolve not to lose, at a time of temptations and perils, the unity thus bestowed.

The Pope commented that in the days leading up to his visit, some newspaper analysts had suggested that he would bring an “ecumenical gift” to Erfurt, in the form of some new offer to promote Christian unity. That sort of analysis, he said, indicates “a political misreading of faith and ecumenism.” Union among Christians cannot be achieved by bargaining, he said; “Faith is not something we work out intellectually or negotiate between us.” Success in ecumenical work, he said, comes only through “entering ever more deeply into the faith in our thoughts and in our lives.”

Reject a “worldly” vision of the Church

Pope Benedict repeatedly called for reform within the Catholic Church—as well as efforts to counteract a secularizing trend in society—during the final hours of his visit on September 24 and 25.

“We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit,” the Pontiff told the Central Committee for German Catholics. “I would add: the real crisis facing the Church in the western world is a crisis of faith.”

Celebrating Mass at the airport in Freiburg on Sunday morning, September 25, the Pope remarked that “renewal of the Church will only come about through openness to conversion and through renewed faith.” Alluding to the day’s Gospel story, of the two sons—one of whom tells the father that he will obey, but does not, and the other who resists the father’s order but then follows it—the Pope warned complacent Catholics that “agnostics who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of our sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is ‘routine’ and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting their hearts be touched by faith.”

Later on Sunday, in a meeting with representatives of Catholic associations, Pope Benedict expanded on that theme. “The Church,” he said, “must constantly rededicate herself to her mission.” And to understand that mission, he said, we must recognize that the Church “has nothing of her own to offer to Him Who founded her.” He went on:

In the concrete history of the Church, however, a contrary tendency is also manifested, namely that the Church becomes settled in this world, she becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world. She gives greater weight to organization and institutionalization than to her vocation to openness.

The rise of secularism, the Pope continued, could actually produce benefits for the Church, because “expropriation of Church goods, or elimination of privileges or the like, have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she has set aside her worldly wealth and has once again completely embraced her worldly poverty.”

The goal, the Pope said, is not “finding a new strategy to relaunch the Church. Rather, it is a question of setting aside mere strategy and seeking total transparency.” He concluded with the exhortation: “It is time once again for the Church resolutely to set aside her worldliness.”

At the conclusion of his Friday schedule, Pope Benedict traveled to Etzelsbach, to preside at Vespers in the Wallfahrtskapelle. He remarked during his homily that the inhabitants of this region, in what was once East Germany, had always found refuge at the Marian shrine: “During two godless dictatorships, which sought to deprive the people of their ancestral faith, the inhabitants of Eichsfeld were in no doubt that here in this shrine at Etzelsbach an open door and a place of inner peace was to be found.”

On Saturday morning, as he presided at an outdoor Mass at the cathedral plaza in Erfurt, he made a similar point: “Here in Thuringia and in the former German Democratic Republic, you have had to endure first a brown and then a red dictatorship, which acted on the Christian faith like acid rain.” However, he challenged the faithful to examine whether the freedoms that had come with the fall of Communism had come at a cost. He urged the people to recapture the spirit of spiritual longing that had prevailed in the first days of freedom, saying that “the political changes that swept through your country in 1989 were motivated not just by the demand for prosperity and freedom of movement, but also decisively by the longing for truthfulness.”

From Erfurt the Pope traveled to Freiburg im Breisgau, where he met with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, then with leaders of Germany’s Orthodox churches, next with seminarians, then with the Central Committee for German Catholics, before finally ending the day at a prayer rally for young Catholics.

Speaking to the young crowd, the Pope returned to the theme of reform within the Church. He acknowledged the damage that the Church has suffered in recent years, and said that it is not unique. “Again and again in history, keen observers have pointed out that damage to the Church comes not from her opponents, but from uncommitted Christians.” The reality of scandal points to the reality of sin, the Pope said, and the antidote is sanctity.

Pope Benedict cautioned the young people not to be misled by popular misconceptions of holiness, which suggest that saints are figures of unattainable virtue. The reality is quite different, he told them:

There is no saint, apart from the Blessed Virgin Mary, who has not also known sin, who has never fallen. Dear friends, Christ is not so much interested in how often in your lives you stumble and fall, as in how often you pick yourselves up again. He does not demand glittering achievements, but he wants his light to shine in you. He does not call you because you are good and perfect, but because he is good and he wants to make you his friends. Yes, you are the light of the world because Jesus is your light.

Appraisals: by the press and the Pope

Media coverage of the papal visit ranged from supportive to caustic, with the most favorable reports focused on the Pope’s addresses, while the most hostile were dominated by the Pontiff’s critics.

Vatican Radio reminded its audience of the general theme for the papal visit: “Where God is, there is the future.” The report called particular attention to the Pope’s speech to the Bundestag in Berlin, noting that one German newspaper, Bild, characterized it as a “great” speech, while another, Frankfurther Algemaine Zeitung, went further, describing it as “the speech of the century.”

A Reuters roundup by Tom Heneghan went to the opposite extreme, with a thoroughly negative view that was summarize by the headline: “Pope disappoints hopes of Catholics and Protestants.” The Reuters story let the Pope’s outspoken critics define the terms of the discussion.  

Pope Benedict himself reported on the trip, describing it as a “great feast of the faith,” during his public audience on September 28. Speaking to about 20,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square, the Holy Father recounted the major events of his four-day visit, commenting on each. He also offered his thanks to everyone involved with the visit: the bishops and public officials who had invited and hosted him, the organizers, and the many volunteers.

From the outset, the Pope told his weekly audience, he had wished to remind the people of Germany of the need to acknowledge God’s role in their lives and in the life of their society. Thus he cited the words of the great German exponent of Catholic social teaching, Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler: “Just as religion requires freedom, freedom also needs religion.”

Pope Benedict called attention to his speech at the Bundestag as one of the important statements of his visit. In his talk to the lawmakers, the Pope said, “I wanted to expose the foundation of law and free state of law, that is, the measure of all law, inscribed by the Creator in the very being of his creation.”

“Germany, and Thuringia in particular, is the land of the Protestant Reformation,” the Pope continued. “So, from the beginning I was eager to give particular emphasis to ecumenism in the context of this trip.” He recalled his meeting with Protestant leaders and their common prayer. The Pope reminded his audience of the important lesson of ecumenical work: “A faith created by ourselves is of no value, and true unity is rather a gift from God, who prayed and prayed for the unity of his disciples.”

In Freiburg, the Pope said, he was impressed with the “very festive reception” that he received. At an evening prayer vigil with young Catholics, he said, “I was happy to see that faith in my native Germany has a young face, it is alive and has a future.”
 
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