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One month before the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to his German homeland — his third as pontiff — diocesan weeklies ran stories with headlines like, “It is going to be a fiasco.” 

More than 50 gay-rights organizations but also progressive Catholics, including clergy, have announced plans to prevent a friendly and peaceful visit. Berlin, which has always been a secularized city with anti-Catholic leanings and in recent years also an urban melting point with immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Near East, is expected to be a flash point. 

The federal government is not viewing the planned demonstrations as “friendly acts” because it invited Pope Benedict to this first official state visit, Sept. 22-25, on the basis of a good relationship between Germany and the Vatican. On the afternoon of his arrival, the pontiff will address the German Bundestag, the national parliament.  

To prevent loud protests at the nearby Brandenburg Gate, city authorities declared the area restricted. So protest organizers have urged their members to ride anonymously on special buses with normal entrance tickets to the Olympic Stadium, where the pope in the evening will celebrate Holy Mass for an estimated crowd of 70,000 people. 

Anti-pope demonstrations  

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a Catholic who is openly homosexual, told reporters he is pleased to meet the pope personally but also is sympathetic to protests against many “old structures” of the Church. He stressed that the demonstrations must be peaceful and not violate legal boundaries. 

The pope’s ambassador to Germany, Archbishop Jean-Claude Perisset, said he recognized protesters’ right to demonstrate, but asked participants to respect religious feelings and “to show the same respect to Benedict as to other political or religious leaders.” 

The real aim of the protest organizers was disclosed when they announced their hope that the demonstrations will get “the same great media echo as [small but well-reported protests] at World Youth Day in Madrid” last month. The new archbishop of Berlin, Rainer Maria Woelki, asked all citizens to keep calm, perhaps in the awareness that anti-pope demonstrations in Madrid as well as in England almost exactly a year ago before melted away in the face of the pontiff’s charisma. 

A Church in transition  

No doubt, the Catholic Church in Germany is facing fundamental challenges. Some say it’s a Church in crisis, others say it’s a Church in transition. No one denies that both big German churches, Catholic as well as Protestant, have lost much of their influence in public life. 

The problems started around the turn of the century when, in addition to declining participation in Church life and a shortage of priests, the first bank failures of 1998 led to financial difficulties and opened a discussion on the traditional system in which the government collects revenue for the churches. More Catholics left the Church during radical restructuring of “pastoral units” in all dioceses to communities of up to eight parishes served by one or two priests. 

But the great exodus started last year when the unthinkable huge dimensions of sexual misuse of minors by priests came to light. Today, Sunday Mass attendance is down to around 3 million out of 26 million Catholics. 

Theologian protest  

The distrust and anger at the Church has given voice to other long-standing but mostly unuttered critiques of the hierarchy: for a supposed clericalism and lack of transparency, for reserving the priesthood to unmarried men, for denying Communion to those divorced and remarried, and for sticking to traditional teaching on contraception and same-sex marriage. 

Early this year, 180 theology professors issued a statement accusing the bishops and the Vatican of steering the Church into chaos by ignoring all petitions for reforms. In response, the president of the German bishops’ conference, Freiburg Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, persuaded at least the majority of the bishops to offer a process of discussion and dialogue with all relevant groups in the Church. He said neither the German bishops nor the pope were “preventing or stopping” reforms but were also willing for changes. The aim, though, could not be to work on a list of deficiencies but to find ways to promote “a spiritual revival of the Church.” 

At the end of a process of dialogue, he stressed, “we must keep the question of God present in our society, and formulate and live our accessible Christian answer.” 

Surprise announcement?  

Archbishop Zollitsch also made waves three weeks ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit when he announced in an interview that a first important reform may be possible in the near future: permission for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive holy Communion. He referred to German President Christian Wulff, a divorced Catholic who lives with his second wife. 

Observers remark that Archbishop Zollitsch is unlikely to have made this statement if he had not discussed the topic with Pope Benedict during visit preparation meetings. 

For some, this news alone was enough to turn scepticism into hope. Four weeks before the papal visit, all tickets for his three large Mass celebrations were sold out. Because of greater than expected demand, the Berlin Mass venue was changed to the Olympic Stadium. 

Today, just one-third of the population of 82 million is registered as Catholic, one-third as Protestant and one-third “without denomination.” There are just about a million Muslim immigrants but their influence is growing. In all big German cities like Berlin, Munich, Cologne or Aachen, mosque minarets reach for the heavens next to the spires of Christian churches and rebuilt synagogues. 

Ferdinand Oertel writes from Germany.