Pope straddles dividing lines in Germany visit

Story highlights

  • Frenetic youth welcome the pope in Catholic region Saturday evening
  • Pope bemoaned the loss of church membership in Germany Saturday morning
  • Benedict thanked God for German freedom and democracy
  • The pope met Friday with victims of clergy abuse in Germany
On the third day of his visit to his native Germany, Pope Benedict XVI made two stops Saturday straddling the lines of history that have divided the country violently -- in past decades into Communist east and democratic west and in past centuries into mostly Protestant north and stalwart Catholic south.
Benedict is known for his studious detail to the history of the Catholic Church and effort to mend divisions in the present-day church.
The pontiff's reception at the two venues contrasted as did the messages he delivered during his visits to a predominantly Protestant region in former Communist eastern Germany and later in the day to the traditionally Catholic southwest, which has enjoyed democratic freedoms since shortly after World War II.
Exuberant Catholic faithful filled a spacious open-air convention center campus in Freiburg im Breisgau in southern Germany Saturday evening to greet the pope at an event for Catholic youth. Mostly young onlookers could be seen waving, chanting, singing and occasionally shedding tears as Benedict approached the colorfully decorated stage.
With the opening line of his sermon, the pope triggered resounding cheers and applause from the crowd, which held up a sea of ritual candles.
"Dear young friends," Benedict said, "I have been looking forward all day to this evening to be here with you and to pray and fellowship with you," the last words of the sentence almost inaudible over the cheers.
The pope's sermon revolved around the light of the candles and was followed by artistic performances.
Earlier in the day, more demure crowds had packed into the quaint, historic center of the city of Erfurt to listen quietly as the pontiff delivered a solemn sermon on freedom from Nazi and Communist dictatorships.
"Yes, we really have a reason to thank God wholeheartedly," Benedict said with reference to Germany's attainment of freedom and democracy.
Erfurt is located in the country's east, which after the fall of the Nazi regime endured a Communist dictatorship, ironically named the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It fell in 1989.
But the pontiff also bemoaned German's long-standing trend of turning away from the Christian faith since gaining greater political freedom.
"The majority of people in this country live far away from a belief in Christ and from the community of the church," the pope said in his sermon.
Catholic and Lutheran denominations alike have lost membership, but for decades German attrition hit the Protestant Church harder.
Disenchantment with the Roman Catholic Church has grown in the wake of the global sex scandal involving Catholic clergy.
The pope met Friday at a seminary in Erfurt with a group of people who had been sexually abused by clergy and church personnel in Germany.
Benedict also met with people "who care for those injured by these crimes," according to a statement from the Vatican press office.
"Moved and deeply shaken by the sufferings of the victims, the Holy Father expressed his deep compassion and regret over all that was done to them and their families," the statement added. "He assured the people present that those in positions of responsibility in the church are seriously concerned to deal with all crimes of abuse and are committed to effective measures for the protection of children."
The pope has had similar meetings elsewhere, in the face of outcries from many nations in Europe, North America and beyond criticizing the church for its handling of sexual abuse cases.
Friday's visit was unique in that it took place in the homeland of Benedict, where he'd also served as a cardinal. He himself got caught up in the scandal in at least one case, when he -- as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- approved the transfer of a man within Germany in the wake of accusations that the man had abused children.
But the archdiocese has said the then-cardinal was never personally aware of the details of the man's case. In March 2010, the priest -- then identified only as H -- was suspended, the archdiocese of Munich and Freising announced.
Five years earlier, enthusiasm was high in Germany's Catholic community when Benedict was named pope. But the sex abuse scandal, and a perception that a conservative church is unlikely to change its ways, has affected the church in the European nation.
According to Der Spiegel magazine, more than 181,000 Catholics have left the church since the scandal broke. And candidates for the priesthood have plummeted 62% since 1990, according to the German Bishops Conference.
While he has visited Germany three times since 2005, this marks Benedict's first state visit as pope.
On Thursday, he met with Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Christian Wulf. He also gave a speech before the Reichstag, Germany's parliament, in which he spoke of the "inviolable dignity of every single human person."
Benedict began his day Friday with a mass in Berlin and met with 15 representatives of Germany's Muslim community. In a subsequent speech, he said, "the convictions (Catholics and Muslims) are becoming visible" while adding that "constant effort is needed in order to foster better mutual acquaintance and understanding."
"There can be a fruitful collaboration between Christians and Muslims," Benedict said in the speech, a transcript of which was provided by the Vatican. "We can offer an important witness in many key areas of life in society (such as) the protection of the family based on marriage, respect for life in every phase of its natural course or the promotion of greater social justice."
The pope is scheduled to meet Sunday with federal judges from Germany's constitutional court and with German bishops in Freiburg before flying back to Rome in the evening.