VATICAN CITY – In the days leading to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to his homeland Sept. 22-25, German media were asking whether the pope would feel at home in the country he left 30 years ago.
Obviously, he visited Germany frequently while serving in Rome and kept up with friends and colleagues and with developments in church life, theology and politics. As pope, he traveled to Germany in 2005 to celebrate World Youth Day in Cologne and again in 2006 to visit Bavaria, the region where he was born and raised and served as a theology professor and bishop.
After interviewing key Germans involved in planning the upcoming papal trip, Vatican Radio’s German program in early September said there’s a bit of a sense that the pope and Germans are strangers to each other.
The country was still divided into East and West Germany when he moved to Rome as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and while the communists in the East had succeeded to a large extent in severely limiting Christian life and practice, church activity in the West still was lively.
In the past 20 years, the number of Catholics in Germany has declined by almost 4 million, although the overall population has increased by about 1 million, according to Vatican statistics. The number of children under 7 baptized annually has dropped to about 170,000 from just above 290,000 in 1991. And the number of marriages performed annually in Catholic parishes dropped from almost 111,000 in 1991 to less than 50,000 in 2009.
Pope Benedict’s pastoral visits are designed to strengthen and confirm Catholics in their faith and the statistics clearly illustrate why the theme chosen for the pope’s visit to Berlin, Erfurt, Freiburg and Eichsfeld is: “Where there is God, there is a future.”
As with Pope Benedict’s visits to other European countries – particularly to France in 2008 and to Scotland and England in 2010 – secularism is expected to be a key theme during the pope’s trip.
“The Holy Father knows the situation of the church in Germany,” Jesuit Father Hans Langendorfer, secretary of the German bishops’ conference, told reporters Sept. 7. In preparation for the trip, he said, the pope spent three hours meeting with German church leaders in Castel Gandolfo in late August.
While the pope cannot resolve all of the problems and tensions within the German church and society, Father Langendorfer said, he will offer “his view of how the church in Germany can find new vitality, inner strength and optimism for the future.”
Several groups have announced they will protest the pope’s visit, including a group that believes the pope’s speech Sept. 22 to the Bundestag, the German parliament, violates church-state separation. Some deputies have announced they will leave the hall in Berlin’s Reichstag Building to protest.
Archbishop Rainier Woelki of Berlin told reporters Sept. 7 that the church is not worried about possible protests, considering that Germany is a democracy. But, he said, it would be better if people heard what the pope had to say before reacting.
Another protest group said it would demonstrate against Catholic teaching on issues related to sexuality and others have raised objections to the German bishops spending $41.5 million on the visit when the church could be helping the poor, especially in East Africa.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg im Breisgau, president of the bishops’ conference, said the collection to be taken up during the evening Mass Sept. 22 in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium already has been designated for aid to people suffering from the drought, famine and civil unrest in East Africa.
Archbishop Woelki said all 70,000 available tickets for the stadium Mass have been distributed. “We expect a sell-out crowd, although we haven’t sold the tickets, of course,” he said.
Relations with other Christians and with Germany’s Jewish and Muslim communities also will be on the pope’s agenda.
In Erfurt, he will hold meetings with Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist leaders and will visit the Augustinian monastery where Martin Luther lived before he started what would become the Protestant Reformation. The city is in what was East Germany, the least religious part of Germany by far.
Bishop Joachim Wanke of Erfurt told reporters “the common suffering under the old political systems has strengthened our spiritual unity.”
Both Catholics and Lutherans struggled under communism, he said, and Catholic and Lutheran priests suffered and died together in the Nazi camps.
Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told reporters in August that Pope Benedict personally added ecumenical events to the trip schedule. He said he expects the pope to encourage Catholics and Lutherans to continue working toward greater unity, particularly to give greater credibility to their missionary outreach and witness.
In addition, he said, the official Catholic-Lutheran dialogue commission is working on projects to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
Cardinal Koch said Catholics and Lutherans must remember that they were united for 1,500 years before the Reformation and still hold much in common. Commemorating the anniversary and moving forward must include “a common purification of memory and an admission of guilt on both sides,” he said.
Father Langendorfer, the bishops’ conference secretary, told reporters he did not know whether the pope would meet privately with German victims of clerical sexual abuse as he did during trips to the United States, Australia, Malta and England.
In January 2010, claims of abuse were made against staff at a Jesuit-run school in Berlin. After publicity about the case, many German dioceses and religious orders reported new accusations of abuse by Catholic priests. The bishops’ conference opened a hotline offering advice, therapy and contacts for victims and by September had enacted stronger child protection measures, including a requirement that all accusations be reported to law enforcement.