Despite the trepidation that preceded it, Pope Benedict XVI's historic official four-day visit to his homeland is going better than many expected.
His first day in Berlin yesterday included a warm welcome by the German president, a surprising standing ovation by the German Parliament, and a packed Olympic Stadium for an open-air Mass.
The reactions were in contrast to reports predicting secular intolerance and hostility. Most Berliners simply showed instead an attitude of “benevolent indifference.”
“This has been a really good start,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists in the afternoon. “The atmosphere has been very positive.” Planned protests were also minimal, an estimated 6,000 rather than the 20,000 expected.
In a sensitively judged speech, President Christian Wulff greeted the Pope with deference, praising the Church for its efforts in helping the poorest and weakest, and emphasizing the important role Christian churches have in society. But a divorced and remarried Catholic, he hinted at what he sees as a need for a change in Church teaching.
In his address, the Pope immediately set out the purpose of this state visit. “I have not come here primarily to pursue particular political or economic goals, as other statesmen rightly do,” he said, “but rather to meet people and to speak about God.”
Noting “a growing indifference to religion in society,” he spoke about the importance of true freedom and responsibility and that have their origins in a “higher instance.” Today's Federal Germany, he stressed, exists “thanks to the power of freedom shaped by responsibility before God and before one another.”
During his customary airborne press conference on the papal plane, the Pontiff played down protests against the visit, saying the German people are in growing need of “a moral voice” in society and for this reason, he was going “with joy to my Germany and I am happy to bring the message of Christ to my homeland.”
But it was his much anticipated historic address to the German parliament which drew widest acclaim. The keynote address resembled a lecture on political ethics in which he stressed the importance of the Church's “natural law” tradition — a teaching that has been all but eclipsed by positivism (the philosophical theory that science is the best approach to uncovering the origins of physical and human processes).
The Pope reminded those present that politics must, above all, “be a striving for justice”. But he argued that an overemphasis on scientific enquiry is framing religion as merely subjective. This is despite the fact that systems of law have “almost always been based on religion,” and that Christianity has pointed to natural law (nature and reason) “as true sources of law.”
This overemphasis of “positivist reason” has put the dignity of man and of humanity at stake, the Pope said. But there is an ecology of man whose nature must be respected and this, the Pope argued, points to the natural law — a set of norms originating from a Creator God.
“The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of equality before the law, the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people's responsibility for their actions,” the Pope continued.
He warned that to ignore or dismiss this heritage as a “thing of the past” would be to “dismember our culture totally and rob it of its completeness.”
In the awareness of “man's responsibility before God and in the acknowledgement of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law,” he said. “It is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.”
On concluding his speech, the parliamentarians gave him a two minute standing ovation. The Leftist parliamentarians who promised to boycott the speech were fewer than expected and only one Green Party MP walked out while he was speaking. Andrea Nahles, a practising Catholic of the Leftist SPD party, said he was “very impressed” by the Pope's speech which he thought was “clever”.
Some thought it was too highbrow: One Green Party MP said it would have been “very appropriate for Humboldt University [Berlin's oldest university]”. Another was upset because he said “nothing about ecumenism, celibacy, women priests, or the Church's attitude to sexual issues.”
But Rainer Bruederle, head of the ruling coalition's centre-right FDP party, welcomed the speech as “an important support” for politics, which “strengthened the basis for responsible action, based on the inner foundations of democracy and the rule of law.”
The Pope, he said, “brilliantly” put this across in “clear, simple lines, making it clear and understandable for everyone.”
Meeting Jewish representatives in the Reichstag afterwards, the Pope, who was drafted into the Nazi youth against his will (he later deserted), used Hitler as an example of the dangers of idolatry.
“The supposedly '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.” The Pope warned of what man is capable of “when he rejects God.”
The day ended with yet another rapturous reception at an open-air Mass in Berlin's Olympic Stadium. Filled almost to capacity with 61,000 faithful, the Pope used his homily to encourage the faithful to remain part of the Church in spite of the crises that afflict it. German Catholics are reportedly leaving the Church in large numbers, partly due to the sexual abuse scandals.
On Friday, the Pope travels to Erfurt, a town in the former East Germany and where the Protestant reformer Martin Luther trained to be a priest. For Benedict, this opportunity to strengthen ecumenical relations is a main focus of his visit to Germany, commonly known as the “Land of the Reformation.”
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