Pope's Germany trip: symbolic meetings amid protests
Pope Benedict XVI makes his first state visit on Thursday to his native Germany, an increasingly securalised country where the Church is smarting from lingering paedophile priest scandals.
The 84-year old pope has a packed program, with 18 sermons and speeches planned for his four-day trip to Berlin, Erfurt in the ex-German Democratic Republic -- where he will hold a prayer in Martin Luther's old seminary -- and Freiburg.
A former professor renowned for his command of theological concepts and language, the pope will insist on the importance of returning God to the centre of Germany -- and Europe's -- progressively irreligious society.
"All this isn't about religious tourism and even less about a spectacle," the pope insisted in comments aired on German television Saturday.
Instead, the theme for his visit will be "where God is, the future is born."
After the success of the World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005 and the pope's triumphant return to his native Bavaria in 2006, this third visit to Germany threatens to be the most difficult.
Though far fewer priests were caught up in the sex abuse scandal in Germany than in Ireland or the US, accusations that the Vatican hushed up the matter led a number of faithful to abandon the Church and a meeting with victims has not been ruled out.
A wave of protests are likely to follow the pontiff throughout the trip, in particular on the first day in Berlin when at least 20,000 people are expected to protest during a speech planned in front of parliament.
Demonstrators who had hoped to march nearby, beneath the historic Brandenburg Gate, will be restricted to an area slightly further away.
Support for the trip has been countered by clamour from victims of clerical sex abuse, dissenting Catholics calling for Church reforms and gay rights supporters decrying the Vatican's moral "backwardness."
But according to surveys, most Germans are indifferent to the visit.
In what will be the third speech by a pope in front of a national assembly -- following Jean Paul II's discourses in front of the Polish and Italian parliaments -- Benedict XVI will address both Germans and the rest of Europe.
According to an informed source, the pontiff is likely to reflect on Christianity's roots and urge his listeners to reject a la carte religion and an intellectual understanding of God in favour of a more grounded vision
Benedict XVI will meet with the Jewish community and Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose father was a protestant minister, before celebrating mass in Berlin's Olympic stadium for 90,000 Catholics, including thousands of Poles.
On the Friday, after meeting with Muslims in Berlin, the pope is expected in Erfurt for a highly symbolic trip to an Augustinian convent where a young Martin Luther prepared for priesthood in 1505.
It will also be the pontiff's first trip to the ex-Democratic Republic, where adherents leaving the Catholic Church is even more prevalent than in the rest of Germany.
The visit will come to a close in Freiburg, in the Baden-Wurttemberg region, which is the diocese of the head of Germany's episcopal conference, Robert Zollitsch, and one of the country's most Catholic regions.
There Benedict XVI will meet with the Central Committee of Catholics, a powerful lay organisation, as well as young pilgrims and seminarians, before presiding over a large closing mass in an airfield in Freiburg on Sunday.
On this last part of the trip, the pope will also receive former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who oversaw the end of the Cold War and the country's reunification.
© 2011 AFP