Pope Benedict XVI’s election sparked joy in Germany, but the Church’s reaction to a sex abuse scandal and a series of controversies have dented his image ahead of his first state trip home.
The main aim of his visit, from tomorrow to Sunday, will be to help “God to penetrate our field of vision”, the Pope said on Saturday.
Wir Sind Papst (We are Pope) crowed Germany’s top-selling Bild daily in a famous front-page when Pope Benedict was elected in 2005, encapsulating a nation’s pride in the first German-born pontiff for more than 500 years.
“It’s the sensation of the century,” the influential paper wrote, as the German Church noted the significance of a countryman elected to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics 60 years after the capitulation of Nazi Germany.
Now, while the man born Joseph Ratzinger 84 years ago in the tiny Bavarian village of Marktl-am-Inn will likely be welcomed home by cheering crowds, there will also be protests and a certain degree of apathy in Germany.
“Having just swept all before him in (Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez) Mr Zapatero’s Spain, Pope Benedict may very well find Germany to be one of his bigger challenges,” said Samuel Gregg, director of research at the US-based Acton Institute, a think tank on religion and economics.
A poll published the week before Pope Benedict’s four-day trip showed 86 per cent of Germans – including 63 per cent of Catholics – thought the trip was “basically unimportant” or “totally unimportant” for them personally.
Even Vatican Radio’s German service concluded before the visit, “there is a sense that the Pope and Germans are strangers to each other”.
Protest groups expect around 20,000 people to demonstrate against the Pontiff and some deputies have threatened to boycott his speech in Parliament, amid concerns over the separation of Church and state. Germany’s Christians are split down the middle between Catholics and Protestants. According to figures published by the German Bishops’ Conference, there were 24.7 million Catholics in 2010 and 24.2 million Protestants.
But Pope Benedict’s trip comes as Catholics – and Protestants – are leaving the Church in droves. In 2010, more than 181,000 people deserted the Roman Catholic Church – roughly one every three minutes. Observers put this down, at least in part, to last year’s annus horribilis with the emergence of a high-profile sex abuse scandal that deeply harmed the German Catholic Church’s image.
Germany’s top archbishop admitted the Church had “failed” in its response as hundreds said they were physically and sexually abused as children in Catholic institutions decades ago amid allegations the crimes were hushed up.
“It’s not my sense that Pope Benedict is viewed in any way as being particularly at fault himself for what happened in Germany or elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Mr Gregg.
But he added: “To the extent that the Church’s moral standing has been discredited by the scandal, it’s inevitable that the Pope’s standing is also affected.”
In a series of interviews published in a book last year, Pope Benedict said that he would not have done this had he known about the bishop’s views on the Holocaust.