German-born Pope Benedict XVI begins an emotional, six-day homecoming to his birthplace and the city where he served as a priest and bishop today.
But the ceremony and pride of the visit, to include Mass for an expected 250,000 people in Munich tomorrow, will not erase the fact that many people have distinctly mixed feelings about Benedict in his native country – the land of the Protestant Reformation now turned largely secular, and home to a shrinking, and noticeably liberal, Catholic Church.
“I think he’s a man of the past, and he’s trying to cement these conservative tendencies in place,” said Rupert Kreuzpaintner, a church-going Catholic from Landshut in Benedict’s home region of Bavaria who sees the Pope as too authoritarian within the Church.
Although he is critical of Benedict, “my faith is not affected by that”, said Kreuzpaintner, 45. “But for me it is a revolting thing, that a Godlike cult is made around such a person who stands for exactly the opposite of what the message should be.”
Many people – especially in Bavaria, the southern region that remains a Catholic stronghold – are genuinely proud of the German Pope, and the house where he was born in the small town of Marktl am Inn has been hastily fixed up before the visit.
The Pope himself sent a letter to Munich, made public on Thursday by visit organisers, saying he was looking forward to seeing the places “of my childhood and youth, of my studies and work as a teacher of theology and as archbishop of Munich”.
“The fellowship with people in my homeland and the prayers that so many are faithfully saying for me is an important support to me in my responsibilities for the great Catholic world church.”
Benedict was ordained a priest in Freising outside Munich, and taught theology at the University of Regensburg and elsewhere before becoming the archbishop of Munich in 1977. He left Bavaria after being named to a post at the Vatican by John Paul II in 1981.
Souvenir makers are selling yellow and white Vatican flags, and the Weideneder brewery in Tann near Marktl has a very Bavarian tribute: Papst-Bier, or Pope Beer, for a pontiff known to enjoy a glass of the national beverage with dinner on occasion.
“I think it’s a prestige visit for Germany,” said Brunhilde Urte, a 66-year-old retired bookkeeper.
Patrick Pehl, a 16-year-old schoolboy leaving evening services at Berlin’s St Hedwig’s Cathedral, called Benedict “a good man. He completely represents my views. For instance, on marriage, abortion, and so on – I agree with him”.
But a survey of 1,000 Germans by the polling agency forsa, for broadcaster Deutsche Welle TV, showed that while 55% considered him a role model and admirable person, even more – 61% – felt that way about the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader.
The survey, carried out on August 30 and 31, had a margin of error of 3% percentage points.
About 35% of Germans are Protestants, followers of the tradition of reformer Martin Luther, who broke with Rome in the 16th century. There are roughly an equal number of Catholics, but even they often bridle at Benedict’s conservative stances on issue such as the ordination of women, gay marriage and married priests.