In Germany, a Lukewarm Reception for Pope Benedict XVI

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Sebastien Bozon / AFP / Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI sits before making his farewell speech as the sun sets at the airport in Lahr, Germany, on Sept. 25, 2011, on the final day of his first state visit to his native Germany

Given that it was Pope Benedict XVI's first state visit to his native Germany, it would have been understandable if he expected an enthusiastic welcome. Germans, however, had other plans. His four-day tour, which began Sept. 22 and included 17 speeches and five large masses, was dogged by controversy and protest. Demonstrations in central Berlin were a reminder that among Germany's 24.6 million-strong Catholic community a sense of shock and betrayal lingers from last year's revelation of hundreds of cases of sexual and physical abuse of children by German priests and church employees. As one protestor, who didn't want to give his name, told TIME: "They abused our children. Now we have to treat the Pope like a VIP."

After the Pope's plane touched down in Berlin last Thursday, the 84 year-old Pontiff was accorded full military honors in a formal welcoming ceremony at Bellevue Palace. Addressing the issue of flagging Christian influence in Europe, he told the audience that "we are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society." At the same event, German President Christian Wulff praised the Church's role in backing German reunification more than 20 years ago. But he stopped far short of praising the Pope's notoriously conservative agenda — and even made reference to his own struggles in the Catholic Church as a remarried divorcé. "Many ask themselves how mercifully [the Church] treats people who have suffered break-ups in their own lives," Wulff said, adding that "it was important for the Church to remain close to the people and not turn inward on itself." Such a public chiding of the church by a senior politician reflects the growing dismay many Germans have with the Church: last year a record 181,000 Germans officially left the Church, a total that exceeded the number of people leaving the Protestant Church for the first time.

As the Pope made his way to central Berlin on Thursday, up to 10,000 demonstrators gathered in the German capital to voice their anger at the Vatican's views on clerical celibacy, contraception, homosexuality and the role of women. The protesters — who comprised gay men and lesbians, trade unionists, feminist campaigners and human rights activists — set off from Potsdamer Platz and marched through the city with posters that read "Pope go home," "Donate a condom for the Pope in Rome" and "You're not welcome here." Floats blared Pet Shop Boys' songs and campaigners dressed as nuns, monks and cardinals as part of their protest against the Pope's views, which they regard as outdated. "The Pope is against gays, abortion and contraception — he's far too hard-line and he's lost track of the changes in society," Jürgen Scholz told TIME. Standing next to two women dressed as nuns carrying a sign reading "religious-free zone," Benoit Schimmel said: "Catholics are leaving the Church because the Pope doesn't get it that he needs to accept people the way they are."

It was a different picture six years ago. In April 2005 , after Benedict's election, there was a public outpouring of pride as Germans enthusiastically celebrated the election of the first German pope in almost 500 years. The tabloid Bild summed up the national mood at the time with its front-page splash: "We are the Pope." Today, Benedict leaves many Germans feeling cold at best and hostile at worst. A poll carried out for the Bertelsmann Foundation on Sep. 18 found that 76% of Germans said it wasn't important what the Pope would say during his trip. And the majority of Catholics, 58%, were equally unenthusiastic. "The Pope is out of touch with ordinary Catholics — many Germans have left the Church, there's a shortage of priests and Catholics feel the Vatican isn't listening to their needs," Christian Weisner, a spokesman for the Catholic lay group "We are Church" says. "The Pope's visit has also been very divisive. He talks about human rights, but what about human rights within the Catholic Church?"

As the protesters gathered in downtown Berlin, the Pope stirred controversy by addressing the Bundestag, or German parliament, in the historic Reichstag building, which was burnt in 1933 in an incident that Hitler exploited in order to consolidate power. Seventy lawmakers boycotted the Pontiff's speech, some protesting what they regard as a violation of Germany's separation of church and state. In his 20-minute-long address, Benedict warned that politicians must not sacrifice ethics for power and he recalled Germany's Nazi past. "We Germans know from our own experience" what happens when power is corrupted, he said, describing the Nazis as a "highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss" while paying tribute to resistance movements. Benedict also gave his backing to Germany's ecological movement, calling it "a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside."

The greatest show of support for the Pope came during an open-air mass he led on September 25, his final day in Germany, in the city's Olympic stadium. Some 60,000 worshippers cheered as the Popemobile ferried him through the stadium during the carefully choreographed event. Benedict urged the crowd not to view the church merely "as one of many organizations within a democratic society," but as the source of their salvation. "Looking into the wide expanse of the Olympic Stadium, which you are crowding in such a great number, fills me with great joy and confidence," he told the pilgrims who'd come from all over Germany and abroad.

During his visit, the Pope also reached out to other faiths. After meeting Jewish community leaders on Thursday, Benedict met representatives of Germany's four-million strong Muslim community in Berlin before traveling to the eastern city of Erfurt, where he met Protestant leaders in the monastery where the 16th century reformer, Martin Luther, once lived. But Protestants expecting new initiatives to bring the churches together were left disappointed. The Pope did not budge on the issue of joint holy communion of the two churches, which he still opposes.

Most notable may be Benedict's meeting with five German victims of abuse behind closed doors on Friday. Still facing allegations of a cover-up by the Catholic Church, the Vatican said the Pope was "moved" and "deeply shaken" by their suffering and expressed his "deep compassion and regret." While few people turned out to see him in Erfurt, a traditionally Protestant city, around 90,000 worshippers packed into the nearby Catholic town of Etzelsbach for a vespers service. And, on Sunday, during the final leg of the Pope's journey, up to 100,000 worshippers turned out for Benedict's last mass in a huge field beside the airport in the city of Freiburg, in southwest Germany — the country's Catholic heartland. Benedict appealed to Catholics to remain loyal to the Vatican and urged them to let faith guide their lives. But with many German Catholics clamoring for reform — from ordaining women to the priesthood to relaxing the celibacy rule and accepting gays — it's unlikely the Pope's visit helped stem the Catholic exodus.