Pope Benedict XVI in Berlin. Wikimedia Commons

He Came to Reawaken Us

On the visit to his homeland, Benedict XVI swept away months of hostile criticism, from the speech in Parliament to prayer with Protestants to dialogue with Jews and Muslims. He surprised us all by putting the heart’s expectation at the center once again.
Christoph Scholz

Benedict XVI’s visit to his homeland was paradoxically one of the most complex of his Pontificate. The series of requests that he faced was long, and included internal reforms in the Church, new steps in ecumenism, and changes regarding moral issues. The Pope, however, clarified from the start that he had not come to satisfy the various groups’ expectations.

His aspiration was more modest, and at the same time more ambitious, as he declared in the welcoming ceremony at Bellevue Caste: “I have not come here primarily to pursue particular political or economic goals, as other statesmen do, but rather to meet people and to speak to them about God.” The Federal President Christian Wulff immediately subjected him to a list of requests for internal reforms in the Church: from the position regarding divorce and remarriage to the sexual abuse scandal, then the role of women and lay people in ecclesiastic functions, and questions of ecumenism. The President of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, latched on to this, asking in what measure the highest representatives of the State are authorized to interfere in questions internal to the Church. In recent weeks, it has mostly been the Linkspartei (successor of the SED, the lone party of the German Democratic Republic) and some groups from the Green Party and secularists of the SPD (Social Democratic Party) who contested the Pope’s right to speak at the Bundestag. Around 80 deputies didn’t show up, thus losing the occasion to participate in “a decisive moment in the history of the German Parliament,” as it was later defined by other deputies. The Pontiff was applauded for several minutes, and the praise was directed in no small way at his personality and the intellectual excellence of his speech.

Luther and a Question
He spoke about the foundations of the State, shifting the sources of law to the “listening heart” of Solomon; man discovers the criteria inside himself, if he listens to his own nature. The speech was an admonition to direct an open gaze to the nature of man and reality: “The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky, and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.”

After the visit, 300 parliamentarians followed the Pope to the Olympic Stadium, where the Mass was attended by 70,000 faithful from all of the German states. Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki spoke of “a momentous event that has been long awaited, and not only by the Church in Berlin.” Berlin is a capital “characterized by the forgetting of God and by atheism,” he explained, where only one in three inhabitants belongs to a Christian church, but, at the same time, it is “a city of martyrs” (here, the largest number of Christians died for the faith in the 20th century).

The persecutions under the DDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany) are a part of the history of the martyrs of the Church. In addition to physical persecution, social condemnations and discrimination also took place–from the prohibition of Christian university studies to the loss of opportunities in work and private life. It was above all the experience of a Church that was concretely lived by its people that kept the Catholics of the district of Eichsfeld and those belonging to the ethnic group of the Sorbs united. To thank the Christians for their constancy, the Pope visited Erfurt and the Marian sanctuary of Etzelsbach. “The political changes that swept through our country in 1989 were motivated not just by the demand for prosperity and freedom of movement, but decisively by the longing for truthfulness,” he emphasized. For security reasons, the Mass could only be attended by 27,000 of the more than 50,000 faithful who wanted to participate. “It was as if the Pope had kissed the Christianity that had, at one time, been so alive in Thuringia and maybe in all of the DDR, awakening it from the sleep into which it had fallen years ago,” commented a newspaper the following day.

The Erfurt leg of the trip was also dedicated to ecumenism, including a moment of common prayer with representatives of Protestantism in the former convent of the Augustinians. For the first time, the Pope spoke in the place where Luther interpreted the word of God. “The question: what is God’s position towards me; where do I stand before God? Luther’s burning question must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too; not an academic question, but a real one. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther,” he affirmed at this meeting, which was both cordial and painful, because it was a reminder of the divisions between the two groups. But Benedict XVI emphasized that ecumenism cannot consist of political-ecclesiastical compromises: “Unity grows not by the weighing of benefits and drawbacks but only by entering ever more deeply into the faith in our thoughts and in our lives.” In light of growing secularization, the Pope called for a collective testimony: “We as Christians must defend the inviolable dignity of human beings from conception to death–from issues of pre-implantation diagnosis to the question of euthanasia... Faith in God must take concrete form in a common defense of man.”

An inner affinity. Also in the spirit of ecumenism was the encounter with the Jewish community at the Reichstag, and with the Muslim community at the Nunciature of the capital. At the first meeting, Benedict XVI reminded all present that “a loving relationship of mutual understanding between Israel and the Church, each respecting the essence of the other, still has further to grow.” Six years after his visit to the Synagogue of Cologne, the Pope invited Christians to be ever more aware “of our own inner affinity with Judaism... For Christians, there can be no rupture in salvation history.” The motive is tied to the world in which we live, where “this dialogue should serve to strengthen our common hope in God in the midst of an increasingly secularized society. Without this hope, society loses its humanity.”

In the same way, in front of the Muslim representatives, the Pope emphasized the importance of the religious dimension: “At times this is thought provocative in a society that tends to marginalize religion or at most to assign it a place among the individual’s private choices.” Instead, “in an overwhelmingly pluralist society, this demand is not unimportant. In the process, care must be taken to guarantee that the other is always treated with respect. This mutual respect grows only on the basis of agreement on certain inalienable values that are proper to human nature, in particular the inviolable dignity of every single person as created by God.” Looking ahead to the imminent Day of Reflection, Dialogue, and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World (Assisi, October 27th), the Pope said, “It seems to me that there can be fruitful collaboration between Christians and Muslims... As believers, setting out from our respective convictions, we can offer an important witness in many key areas of life in society. I am thinking, for example, of 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.”
In Freiburg, he encountered the same organized secular Catholicism that is often at odds with Rome. Alois Glück, President of the Central Committee of German Catholics, demanded the implementation of sweeping reforms in the light of growing secularization, the decline in vocations, and strong public pressure following the cases of abuse.

Benedict XVI came to a disenchanted conclusion regarding the condition of the Church in the German state: “The Church in Germany is superbly organized. But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in the living God? We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit. I would add: the real crisis facing the Church in the Western world is a crisis of faith. If we do not find a way of genuinely renewing our faith, all structural reform will remain ineffective.”

Young people also expect more from the Church. Referring to the candles that they had lighted during the Vigil at the exposition center in Freiburg, the Pope said: “A candle can only give light if it lets itself be consumed by the flame. It would remain useless if its wax failed to nourish the fire. Allow Christ to burn in you, even at the cost of sacrifice and renunciation. Do not be afraid that you might lose something and, so to speak, emerge empty-handed at the end. Have the courage to apply your talents and gifts for God’s Kingdom and to give yourselves–like candle wax–so that the Lord can light up the darkness through you. Dare to be glowing saints, in whose eyes and hearts the love of Christ beams and who thus bring light to the world.”

Benedict XVI also avoided a moralistic reduction of the figure of the saint, often an object of caricatures and distortions, “as if to be holy meant to be remote from the world, naïve, and joyless. Often it is thought that a saint has to be someone with great ascetic and moral achievements, who might well be revered, but could never be imitated in our own lives. How false and discouraging this opinion is!” Jesus “is not so much interested in how often in our lives we stumble and fall, as in how often with His help we pick ourselves up again. He does not demand glittering achievements, but He wants His light to shine in you. He does not call you because you are good and perfect, but because He is good and He wants to make you His friends. Yes, you are the light of the world because Jesus is your light. You are Christians–not because you do special and extraordinary things, but because He, Christ, is your life, our life. You are holy, we are holy, if we allow His grace to work in us.”

With the victims of the abuse. The transmission of the faith was one of the questions that the Pope had most at heart during this visit. The answer is not so much in the implementation of a given series of reforms, as it is in concrete devotion to those who “lack experience of God’s goodness.” These people “need places where they can give voice to their inner longing. And here we are called to seek new paths of evangelization,” affirmed the Pope at Freiburg. “Small communities could be one such path, where friendships are lived and deepened in regular communal adoration before God. There we find people who speak of these small faith experiences at their workplace and within their circle of family and friends, and in so doing bear witness to a new closeness between Church and society.”

The large celebrations at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, in Erfurt, and in Freiburg were not ecclesiastical staging, but signs of a concrete response that the Church has to offer to the fundamental questions of man–signs of the presence of God. To a Church that is insecure and disheartened, the Pope knew how to give a new awareness, a consciousness that comes with the humility of the Christian who knows that it is not he who “makes the Church.”

One of these signs of humility and charity was the dialogue with the victims of sexual abuse. This was an encounter that was, at the same time, a challenge addressed to every single individual, to confront oneself once again with one’s own fundamental questions: “Agnostics, who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of their sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is ‘routine’ and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting it touch their hearts, or letting the faith touch their hearts.” And in the concluding gathering, addressing himself to Catholics who are involved in the Church and in society, the Pope remembered Blessed Mother Teresa, who once responded to the question: “What is the first thing that would have to change in the Church?” with: “You and I.” This speech was both the apex and the synthesis of the message that Benedict XVI wanted to bring to his homeland, and beyond. In just 20 minutes, he made the greatness and mysterious profundity of the Catholic Church shine through. The Church “has nothing of her own to offer to Him who founded her, such that she might say: here is something wonderful that we did! Her raison d’être consists in being a tool of redemption, in letting herself be saturated by God’s word and in bringing the world into loving unity with God.” The Church, therefore, must continually make the effort to “detach herself from her tendency towards worldliness,” which the Pope situated in the history of salvation: “One could almost say that history comes to the aid of the Church here through the various periods of secularization, which have contributed significantly to her purification and inner reform.”

And then came what, to some, represented the real challenge, and to others the real scandal, of the entire trip–Benedict XVI demanded from the community that is perhaps materially the richest, but spiritually the poorest, a “liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness” that would render it once again ready to complete its real mission: “Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world; she can be truly open to the world. She can live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbor.”

The speech had the effect of a cymbal clash, at the end of a trip in which the Pope disappointed many expectations in order to put the expectations of the human heart–and the mission of the Church in response to this need for fulfillment and redemption–back at the center. As he said six years ago, at the beginning of his ministry, “There is nothing more beautiful than to know Christ and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”