Bavaria?s BenediktfestRobert Mickens
- 16 September 2006
Like his predecessor's first papal visit to Poland, Benedict XVI's return home excited huge enthusiasm among his fellow countrymen. It was billed in part as a sentimental journey but the visit will be remembered as the event when he argued eloquently for God's place in a rational world
Pope Benedict XVI has returned to his Catholic Bavarian homeland, but the 9 to 14 September visit to six cities and hamlets was much more than a mere walk down memory lane. The 79-year-old Benedict used his first visit back home since becoming Bishop of Rome as a pulpit to preach two related themes that have begun to define his pontificate: first, that God must be given a central place in every human endeavour, beginning with family life and extending even into the realm of scientific research; and second, that the Catholic Church must be more attentive to its inner life of prayer in order to better undergird its vast array of social projects and other activities.
The hundreds of thousands of people who turned out for the variety of papal events eagerly cheered the Pope. The affectionate welcome was especially notable given that, up until just a couple of years ago, the former Herr Kardinal could have hardly expected more than "polite" greetings from most people during his annual visits. But then he was still the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a job he assumed after nearly five difficult years as Archbishop of Munich. But judging by this past week, it seemed that those days have long been forgotten.
"People really love him," said Notker Wolf OSB, the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation. The Bavarian monk, who is now based in Rome, was a commentator for the regional German television station that provided round-the-clock coverage of the papal visit. The abbot said that the Pope had won people over with his message. "He is just preaching the love of God. He is saying, ‘Listen, God is different from what you think.' For us in Germany, God has been the bookkeeper, writing down all your sins ... And that is just the opposite from what the Pope is bringing us now. He removed the fear. He speaks of another God - who liberates us and loves us ..."
"The world needs God. We need God!" Benedict XVI told a crowd in Munich last Sunday at what was his first Mass in Bavaria as Pope. At the outdoor liturgy at a former airfield, he said that the Western world had become too reliant on empirical sciences and deaf to the voice of God. Even Catholics, he noted, were sometimes afflicted with this "hardness of hearing". "People in Africa and Asia", he said, "are frightened by a form of rationality that totally excludes God from the human vision, as if this were the highest form of reason, and one to be imposed on their cultures, too." He said they were not "threatened" by Christianity, but by the West's "contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise in freedom". The Pope said, "The tolerance we urgently need includes the fear of God - respect for what others hold sacred." He then took that same message to a slightly different level later the same afternoon when he returned to the cathedral where he was archbishop from 1977 to 1982. At a vespers service that included several hundred children who recently made their First Communion, the Pope told the parents to go to church with their little ones and to pray at home, "at meals and before going to bed". He told them that it would bring their families closer together and provide a "powerful source of peace and joy".
Pope Benedict left Munich on 11 September and went to the small town of Altötting some 100 kilometres away, the home of a Marian shrine that he visited often as a child and continued to go to right up to his election as Pope. There he presided at Mass in a public square and delivered what even the director of the Holy See press office - Fr Federico Lombardi SJ - called a "very spiritual" message. Reporters were eager to see whether the Pope would make any special comments on the day when many leaders and communities around the world were commemorating the fifth anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks. While one of the petitions at the Mass remembered the victims of 2001 tragedy, the Pope stuck to preaching on the Wedding Feast of Cana, telling worshippers that they should pray to Jesus just as the Virgin Mary did: "She doesn't ask for anything in particular, and she certainly doesn't ask him to perform a miracle," he said. "She simply hands the matter over to Jesus and leaves him to decide what to do." The message seemed clear enough: the Church's job - as Church - is to pray.
Later in the afternoon the Pope prayed for religious vocation, telling seminarians and members of men's and women's religious orders that people all over the world were "waiting for heralds to bring them the Gospel of peace and the good news of God who became man". He mentioned the various continents, but singled out only two countries: "In the so-called West, here among us in Germany, and in the vast lands of Russia it is true that a great harvest could be reaped." Mentioning predominantly Orthodox Russia seemed more than coincidental in light of the resumption next week in Belgrade of a long-stalled Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue.
Pope Benedict then made a brief stop at Marktl am Inn, the town where he was born and lived for the first two years of his life. Joined by his older brother, Mgr Georg Ratzinger, he prayed before the font in the church of St Oswald where he was baptised. Then the brothers and the papal entourage were flown by helicopter to the city of Regensburg, the seat of the diocese of the same name, where they retired to rooms at the Major Seminary. The city has a special place for the two Ratzingers. Though they were both ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, each has a house in the Regensburg area. The elder Ratzinger long directed the cathedral's boys choir and the Pope went to what was then its fledgling university in 1971 as professor and vice-rector. It was clear by the elated expression on his face while he was driven among the waving crowds into the heart of the old city that Pope Benedict was truly feeling "at home".
The people of Regensburg gave him perhaps the warmest welcome of his visit during the five-day Bavarian tour. Upwards of 250,000 of them came to an outdoor Mass on Tuesday morning, where the Pope elaborated on his earlier messages and said God could not be "taken out of the equation" of human life. "From the Enlightenment on, science, at least in part, has applied itself to seeking an explanation of the world in which God would be unnecessary," he said. "When God is subtracted, something doesn't add up for man, the world, the whole vast universe," he continued, and then rejected, as contrary to faith, the "chance result of evolution".
But he said there were also "pathologies and the life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason" and said "hatred and fanaticism" could destroy God's image. The Pope said it was important for Christians to "state clearly the God in whom we believe, and to proclaim confidently that this God has a human face". But he also said that faith called us to accountability. "In the face of injustice we must not remain indifferent and thus end up as silent collaborators or outright accomplices."
Later, in what was easily his most weighty speech, Pope Benedict delivered a public lecture to professors and academics at the University of Regensburg. He offered what he defined as a "critique of modern reason" painted "with broad strokes". His basic point was that a gradual de-Hellenisation of Christian faith, still in progress, had reduced faith to something unreasonable. "This ... has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age," the Pope insisted. "The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application," he continued. And he repeated that the West would continue to have difficulties with other cultures as long as it marginalised religious faith. "A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures," he warned.
After pronouncing those heavy words, Pope Benedict held an ecumenical prayer service. Then the next day he and his brother, Georg, spent the day virtually alone, lunching at the elder sibling's home behind the Regensburg Cathedral and then having dinner at the Pope's home in the neighbouring suburb of Pentling. They visited the graves of their parents and sister in between. The Wednesday alone was the most "private" part of a celebrated home visit unlike any that Joseph Ratzinger has ever had.
"I don't think he ever imagined that he would be so loved," said Abbot Wolf. "The more you love people, the more they love you," he said. And Pope Benedict XVI is aware of this. That's why he has made it his mission to help other people know how much God loves them.