Pope Benedict XVI ended an official visit to Germany Sunday, confounding many sceptics who foresaw protests and acrimony during the intense four-day trip.
Despite criticism ahead of the visit from sections of German society and parts of the Church who generally oppose the Church's teaching, the Pope received a far warmer reception than expected, although it stopped short of his triumphant visit to Britain last year which all but silenced his critics.
From the outset, he set out "to meet people and to speak about God," delving into what he sees as the deep problems facing German (and Western) society: its "growing indifference to religion"; relativism which fragments relationships, causing an "exaggerated individualism"; and what he said was a failure to recognize that true freedom and responsibility come from God.
"We see that in our affluent western world much is lacking," the Pope told a group of German lay Catholics. "Many no longer seem capable of any form of self-denial or of making a sacrifice for others."
He said the Church needed to find new ways of reaching out to these people to tackle what he sees as "a crisis of faith."
In other addresses, the Pope said lukewarm Christians are more damaging to the Church than nonbelievers outside it, and that some agnostics might be closer to God than believers who go to Church out of a sense of "routine."
As has become customary on many papal visits, Benedict XVI met a group of five victims of clerical sex abuse, an encounter that left him "moved and deeply shaken." In a later address, he suggested that the scandal could be blamed on a worldliness that has entered the Church.
The Church is not like an association, he said, and he urged Catholics to "resolutely set aside worldliness" so her missionary witness "shines more brightly."
In short, this was vintage Joseph Ratzinger: the discourses, clearly originated from his own hand, were filled with appeals to return to the fundamentals of the faith, "to the heart of the Good News of Christ."
Benedict XVI's historic address to the German parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin Sept. 22 stunned even some of his ideological opponents. He said politics is above all about "a striving for justice" and argued that it was the Christian faith that helped the West to develop the rule of law, human rights, and belief in social justice.
But he warned against an overemphasis on scientific enquiry, or "positivist reason," which threatens to banish religion from the public sphere.
Without reference to God, he warned, 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" — a precedent shown by the Nazis.
Over 50 legislators boycotted the speech, 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." Many papal observers believe it will go down as one of the best — if not the best — address of this pontificate.
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 Germany's federal 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 while there, the Pope made history when he became the first Pontiff to pray at the Augustinian monastery of the 16th century Church reformer, Martin Luther.
Although Church officials and many Catholics reacted warmly to the visit (around 300,000 came from all over Germany to see him), reactions from the German press were generally mixed. The popular Bild newspaper was one of the few brazenly positive, saying that "never before has the "Wir Sind Papst" [we are Pope] feeling been more real in his homeland."
The Suddeutsche Zeitung joined others in criticizing the Pope 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 in a Sept. 26 editorial, the German daily Die Zeit said it believed that this visit went far beyond such debates, and tried to tackle more serious and profound questions, namely: "Where do we come from and where do we want to go?"
"That's a lot" to ponder, it said, adding that it is "basically everything."
Yet these were evidently questions many Germans had been asking themselves — a fact partly given away by the warm reception.
"The visit showed that the Christian faith is something that relates to today's society," Fr. Hans Langendorfer, chief coordinator of the trip, tells Newsmax.
"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. This was wonderful, and it made the Pope feel good. He's very content."
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