Indifference, irritation and, inevitably, protest will likely mark a papal trip to the former East Germany that includes an historic meeting in the one-time home of Martin Luther to find ways Catholics and Protestants can work together to save Germany’s soul.
Nearly a quarter of a million Catholics will throng open-air services celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on his Thursday to Sunday state visit to Erfurt, Berlin, a Catholic enclave at Etzelsbach and staunchly Catholic Freiburg in southwest Germany.
However, unlike in the Rhineland and his native Bavaria, where Catholic majorities ensured him a warm homecoming on his two previous visits to Germany as pope, the 84-year-old Joseph Ratzinger will encounter deep suspicion in eastern Germany, an area traditionally Protestant, but now mostly atheist after four decades of Communism.
The meeting with Germany’s Protestant leaders will take place in Erfurt’s 13th-century Augustinian monastery, where Martin Luther lived on and off as a Catholic monk from 1505 to 1511 before defying Rome by writing his 95 Theses in 1517 and later translating the Bible into German.
In the city’s cobbled streets, churches, restaurants and shops vie to claim historical links to the priest behind the Reformation and split with Rome.
Few posters or papal flags welcoming the pope can be seen, though on the steep steps up to the medieval Catholic cathedral a drunk yells instructions to builders erecting an altar for a Mass for 85,000 people.
“He’ll find himself in an unusual situation with a very high number of atheists. It’s a joint challenge for us,” Ilse Junkermann, Erfurt’s female Protestant bishop who will host the historic talks, told German church media.
In the student council room at Erfurt University, Luther’s alma mater, students Karola Lieb and Benno Kirtzel, both 21, say few people their age go to church, which they pin on state disapproval of religion in the former German Democratic Republic.
“The Stasi used to take note if you were very active in the church and you could have big problems,” law student Lieb said.
Kirtzel, who was raised in a tiny Catholic minority in Thuringia where Erfurt is the state capital, is the target of jokes about sexual abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church.
With a guitar on his back and a plectrum as an earring, he and a youth choir will play warm-up for the Mass in Erfurt and expects Catholic pilgrims “to go back stronger in their faith.”
NOT IN MY BED
Lieb describes herself as “very atheist” and disagrees with the pontiff’s prohibition on artificial contraception, but believes he has a right to be heard in Germany, as representative of a faith that “influences my values, even though I am not a Christian.”
However, she adds: “Most people I know are not interested in going to the Mass and want to leave the city because the trams will stop and the shops will be shut.”
The pope will say Mass for 70,000 at Berlin’s Nazi-era Olympic Stadium on Sept. 22, the same day he meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel — daughter of a Lutheran pastor in communist-era East Germany — and speaks in parliament.
For the gay, lesbian and humanist groups hoping to mobilize 20,000 protesters on the day, faith or atheism is not the question.
Like left-leaning members of parliament who plan to boycott the pope’s address, the protesters say he has a right to visit his Catholic flock, but should not be given a political stage for dogmatic beliefs that they say infringe on human rights.