Pope Benedict XVI embarks on a visit to Germany Thursday — his third trip to his homeland as Pope and, being one of the most secular countries in Europe, potentially one of his most challenging.
The Sept. 22-25 visit begins in Berlin followed by the cities of Erfurt in the former East Germany, and Freiburg im Breisgau, a city near the Swiss-German border.
As a state visit, the Pope is scheduled to give an eagerly anticipated historic address to Germany's Parliament in the Reichstag, although around 100 left-wing parliamentarians are already planning to boycott it. They claim a papal speech there will violate a separation of church and state. The Vatican is unfazed by the possibility.
Yet his visit to the German capital will probably 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 therefore been planned to coincide with his Bundestag address, mainly concerning the Church's teaching on condom use, abortion, and homosexuality. The Church and the city authorities are hoping the protesters won't turn violent.
Recognizing the depth of animosity to the Church in some quarters, Benedict XVI has already tried to reach out to Germans who struggle to understand the Catholic faith or to recognize God's existence. In a video message released to German television over the weekend, he said it is important to “restore God to our horizon, the God who is so often absent but of whom we have such great need.”
The Pope continued: “You may ask me: 'But, does God exist? And if he exists does he really concern himself with us? Can we reach him?' It is, indeed, true that we cannot place God on the table, we cannot touch him or pick him up like an ordinary object. We must rediscover our capacity to perceive God, a capacity that exists within us.”
He said some idea of God's greatness can be seen by looking at the cosmos and the world's innate rationality. “In the great rationality of the world we can get some idea of the creator spirit from which it comes,” he said. “In the beauty of creation we can get some idea of the beauty, the greatness, and the goodness of God.”
The Pope also said God's voice can be heard in Holy Scripture, and in meeting people who have been touched by the divine. “I am not just thinking of the great (of St. Paul, Francis of Assisi, or Mother Teresa), I am thinking of the many simple people about whom nobody speaks,” he said. “Yet when we meet them they emanate some quality of goodness, sincerity, and joy, and we know that God is there and that he also touches us.”
Although Christianity is said to be rapidly declining in Germany, made worse by the clerical sex abuse crisis and some dissenting priests and laity, the Vatican has said the Pope will focus on the fundamentals of the faith rather than enter into specific controversies.
However, like other papal visits, he is expected to meet a group of sexual abuse victims and, as is customary, this will not be known until after any such meeting has taken place.
Ahead of the visit, the Pope's elder brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, has given a very candid and revealing interview to a German newspaper in which he discusses his younger sibling, what they share in common and how Benedict is coping with the papacy.
“He is still the same — as a man, he hasn't changed,” Ratzinger told Welt am Sonntag Sept. 18. “He doesn't try to pretend, he doesn't slip into any role. He doesn't wear a mask . . . he is the gracious, friendly, and modest man he always was — always cordial and quite unaffected.”
Discussing the Pope's daily routine, Ratzinger, 87, said the Pontiff works a great deal but not generally in the evenings. “He works very fast and is extremely focused, but he's not a night worker,” he said. “And in old age, all productivity is reduced — we notice that too.” Age is catching up with him, he said — walking “appears more difficult”, his voice has become “somewhat quieter” but mentally “he shows no deterioration.”
Pope Benedict, 84, watches the 8 o'clock evening news on television, switching between Italian and German channels, and is “very sensitive about the media.” But at the same time, Ratzinger added, he is aware of the origin of any attacks. “He usually knows what's behind them. That makes it easier for him — and of course the enormous sympathy that he hears again and again also helps him.”
When he was elected Pope, his elder brother was dispirited, concerned that his younger sibling, to whom he has always been close, could fulfill such an immensely challenging ministry. Did he still feel the same way? “Not really,” he replied. “I've reconciled myself to the whole complex. Our contact changed because of it; that was clear. But whoever has this task, and has said yes to it, must accept it.”
He said he has never had an elder brother attitude with his younger sibling, having to keep him in line. “That was never the case with us,” he said. “I know that he is reasonable and responsible, and I also try to be so. It was always like this.”
And despite the loftiness and awesome responsibility of being Pope, Msgr. Georg still calls his little brother Joseph. “Anything else” he said, “would be abnormal and awkward.”
A new book entitled “My Brother the Pope” — a series of interviews with Msgr. Georg Ratzinger given to historian Michael Hesemann — was published in Germany last week.
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