Trip roundup: In Germany, pope says godlessness poses new risks for society

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

FREIBURG, Germany (CNS) — On a four-day visit to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI warned that godlessness and religious indifference were undermining the moral foundations of society and leaving its weakest members exposed to new risks.

He repeatedly mentioned the duty to protect the unborn, and proposed this as an area where Catholics and non-Catholics can witness together and help resist ethical erosion.

The pope, making his first official state visit to his homeland, said after arriving Sept. 22 that he had come “to meet people and to speak about God.” He took that message to the country’s political leaders, to the church’s ecumenical partners, to the Catholic faithful and, through the mass media, to the German people.

The 84-year-old pope at times looked tired during the heavy program of events, but generally held up well. He beamed when enthusiastic Catholics in central and southern Germany chanted his name and waved banners with the trip’s slogan, “Where there is God, there is a future.”

When the pope stepped off his plane in Berlin, the German capital, he was greeted by President Christian Wulff and Chancellor Angela Merkel. The pope smiled as a boy and a girl presented him with a bouquet of flowers, and cannons boomed out a 21-gun salute.

At a welcoming ceremony at the presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin, the pope strongly defended the church’s voice in public affairs and said that to dismiss religious values as irrelevant would “dismember our culture.”

Wulff, in his own speech to the pope, agreed that the church’s message is needed in modern society. But the president, a 52-year-old Catholic who is divorced and civilly remarried, added that the church too is challenged by important questions today: “How compassionately will it treat points of rupture in the lives of individuals? How will it approach points of rupture in its own history or the wrongdoing of members of its clergy?”

The pope’s main event in Berlin was his speech to the German parliament, the first time he has addressed a legislative body. Although dozens of parliamentarians boycotted the event, he received a standing ovation from the assembly.

The pope’s speech, philosophical in tone, argued that belief in God was the foundation for Western progress in law, social justice and human rights through the centuries.

Germany’s Nazi past, he said, illustrates that without justice, the state becomes “a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.”

Today, he said, with unprecedented opportunities to manipulate human beings, the threat is even more dramatic. He pointed to Germany’s ecology movement as a step in the right direction, but said an “ecology of man” was needed to protect human dignity.

The pope later met with Jewish representatives and recalled the Nazi “reign of terror” in his homeland, saying it showed what people are capable of when they deny God.

“The supposedly ‘almighty’ Adolf Hitler was a pagan idol, who wanted to take the place of the biblical God, the creator and father of all men,” he said.

Celebrating Mass in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium for 70,000 people, the pope appealed for a better understanding of the church, one that goes beyond current controversies and the failings of its members.

On the plane carrying him from Rome, the pope told reporters he understood the feelings of German Catholics who have left the church because of revelations about clerical sex abuse, but he urged them to work against such crimes “on the inside.” The pope later met with five sex abuse victims in Erfurt, an encounter that the Vatican said left the pontiff “moved and deeply shaken.”

The pope presided over major ecumenical events Sept. 23 in Erfurt, the town where Martin Luther was ordained and site of an Augustinian monastery where he lived for several years. Meeting with Lutheran leaders, the pope prayed for Christian unity and said ecumenism today faces threats from both secularization and Christian fundamentalism.

“God is increasingly being driven out of our society. … Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith?” he said.

The pope also cautioned against viewing ecumenism as a type of negotiation. The best path to Christian unity, he said, is witnessing the Gospel courageously in a society that is often antagonistic toward the faith.

Meeting with Orthodox representatives Sept. 24, the pope urged Christian churches in Germany to speak up jointly in defense of human life “from conception to natural death” and defend “marriage between one man and one woman from any kind of misinterpretation.”

In encounters with the faithful in Erfurt and Freiburg, the pope did not enter into details of the contentious issues that have divided German Catholics, such as priestly celibacy, women’s ordination and church teaching on homosexuality. Instead, the pope preached the importance of living the Gospel and held out German saints as models of the “radical” embrace of Christ.

In Erfurt, a city in former East Germany, the pope said at a Mass that Nazism and communism had been like “acid rain” for Christianity. But he said the oppression and difficulties in those dark years actually left many Catholics with a stronger faith — stronger, perhaps, than under current freedoms.

Addressing German lay leaders in Freiburg Sept. 24, the pope said the church in Germany was clearly “superbly organized.” Then he asked: “But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength?” He suggested that small Christian communities may be the most promising path toward renewing the church’s impact in society.

At a prayer vigil in Freiburg, the pope rode his popemobile past screaming teens who snapped photos with cell phones. An oversized road sign proclaimed in English, “Highway to Heaven — B16.”

His talk to the youths emphasized that human efforts to make a better world were never enough, and that only faith in God cuts through the “darkness and gloom” of suffering and evil.

At a Mass on his final day in Freiburg, the pope told an estimated 100,000 people that agnostics who are troubled by the question of God are closer to the kingdom of God than “routine” Catholics whose hearts are untouched by faith.

He said the church in Germany would make an impact in society only if everyone works together “in fidelity to their respective vocations” and in unity with their bishop and the pope.

In a meeting afterward with Catholics involved in church institutions, lay movements and political life, the pope said the best way for the church to influence society was to “set aside her worldliness” and stop adapting to the standards of secular society. History has shown that when it is liberated from organizational and political burdens, the church’s “missionary witness shines more brightly,” he said.

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Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden in Freiburg.

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