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Pope Visits His Native Bavaria

Church attendance has declined in the region. Benedict hopes that `coming generation may remain true to the spiritual heritage.'

September 10, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MUNICH, Germany — Pope Benedict XVI returned to his homeland Saturday in what he described as a joyous personal journey, but one that highlights the decline of traditional Roman Catholicism in the heart of Europe.

This prosperous, conservative Bavarian region was a bastion of Catholicism when Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict, was born and educated here and started his life as a priest during the middle of the last century. Today, the rate of church attendance is one of the lowest in Europe and the number of people who see themselves as dedicated Catholics is shrinking.

"My hope is that all my compatriots from Bavaria and from all Germany can actively help transmit to the citizenry the fundamental values of the Christian faith," Benedict said at a reception in Munich's airport, where he arrived for a six-day visit to the area.

"Today's social context is in many ways different from that of the past," he acknowledged. "But nevertheless I think we are all united in the hope that the coming generations may remain true to the spiritual heritage."

The airport greeting was low-key, with only a small crowd allowed to attend. Blue-and-white Bavarian flags fluttered alongside the standards of Germany and the Vatican. A military band played the anthems of Germany and Bavaria, followed by musical greetings from an Alpine militia wearing lederhosen, with red feathers in their caps.

Portions of the highway from the airport to the center of Munich were lined with Germans eager to get a glimpse of the pope. They waved from overpasses; some stood on the edges of their cornfields or perched on tractors and bicycles.

And thousands of people crowded into Munich's central Marienplatz Square, festooned with the Vatican's colors of yellow and white, where Benedict led prayers before a 17th century marble statue of the Virgin Mary.

"Our German pope has come back to his Bavarian homeland!" Bavaria state Gov. Edmund Stoiber announced. Benedict smiled and said he was moved.

Speaking earlier to journalists on the flight from Rome, the pope sought to downplay the difficulties of the Catholic Church in Germany and said he had great hope for its future.

"I would not say that the church in Germany is tired; there is fatigue everywhere," he said. The "dynamism" of the preparations for his visit, for example, showed a liveliness among the faithful in Germany, he said.

Still, Benedict is keenly aware of the plight of Christianity in Western Europe and has made its revival a centerpiece of his papacy. In an extensive interview with German journalists last month, he bemoaned "a wave of new and drastic enlightenment or secularization" that threatens faith in the Western world.

"It's become more difficult to believe, because the world in which we find ourselves is completely made up of ourselves, and God, so to speak, doesn't appear directly anymore," the pope said. "Humanity has rebuilt the world by itself, and finding God inside this world has become more difficult."

German ambivalence about religion was visible before the pope's arrival. The Bild, the nation's largest tabloid, published front-page banner headlines proclaiming, "Benedict, We Love You," and the weekly magazine Stern ran full-page ads warning, "Hide your pill, the pope is coming." A leading dissident group that was founded in Germany, We Are the Church, issued an open letter to the pope reiterating its demands for reforms, such as greater formal participation by women, as the way to revive interest in the faith.

Benedict will visit his parents' graves, his birthplace, Marktl am Inn, and the University of Regensburg, where he taught theology from 1969 to 1977. He served as the archbishop of Munich from 1977 until Pope John Paul II named him to a post at the Vatican in 1981.

Benedict is not inclined to emotional displays. But asked on the airplane to Munich whether he planned to visit Germany again, the 79-year-old pontiff sounded wistful.

"I am an old man, and I don't know how much more time the Lord will give me," he said. "I was born in Bavaria. There are many memories in my soul ... and so my heart beats Bavarian."

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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