FREIBURG, Germany, Sep 25 – Pope Benedict XVI celebrated mass before some 100,000 of the faithful in Germany’s Catholic heartland on Sunday at the end of a visit that has disappointed many inside and outside the Church.
Mothers held up babies and toddlers for the pontiff to bless and kiss as he arrived in brilliant sunshine at an airfield in Freiburg in the specially-built “popemobile”.
It was the fourth and final day of an exhausting trip, his first state visit to his native country, that took the 84-year-old pontiff from Berlin and Erfurt in eastern Germany to this staunchly Catholic university town in the southwest.
Benedict said it was “moving” for him to celebrate the mass with so many.
He urged German Catholics to overcome their internal differences and remain faithful and obedient to Rome in “this time of danger and radical change” and a “crisis of faith”.
“The Church in Germany will overcome the great challenges of the present and future, and it will remain a leaven in society, if the priests, consecrated men and women, and the lay faithful… work together in unity,” he said.
And in remarks seemingly aimed at German Catholic groups clamouring for change such as “Wir sind Kirche” (We are Church) or “Die Kirche von unten” (The Church from below), he said: “The Church in Germany will continue to be a blessing for the entire Catholic world: if she remains faithfully united with the successors of Saint Peter and the apostles.”
Benedict has used his first-ever state visit to his native country to call German Catholics to order and hammer home his ultra-conservative credo on a range of issues such as artificial contraception, abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage.
He has warned against “lukewarm” Christians who he said were damaging the Church.
In turn, the trip and his tough words have disappointed many.
For Protestants, Benedict has failed to come up with concrete action to heal the 500-year-old rift between the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, which each have about 24 million members in Germany.
Some Protestants had hoped the pontiff would rehabilitate Martin Luther, who was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church and whose schism with Rome in 1517 led to the enduring split in western Christianity, or ease restrictions on Protestant spouses sharing communion in Catholic masses.
But the pope indicated such expectations were exaggerated.
Germany’s Jewish community also appeared to expect more from the visit.
The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, said his talks with the pontiff failed to make headway on painful topics such as the sanctification of World War II-era Pope Pius XII.
A keenly awaited element of Benedict’s visit was his meeting with victims who suffered abuse by Roman Catholic clergy, as he had on previous trips to Britain, Malta, the United States and Australia.
A Vatican statement released after the meeting described Benedict as being “moved and deeply shaken by the suffering of the victims… (and) expressed his deep compassion and regret over all that was done to them and their families.”
But victims’ groups were unappeased, calling for the Vatican to open up its archives, where the abuse is documented, and allow the cases to be fully investigated.
“The pope’s meeting will do nothing to stop priests from molesting kids or bishops from concealing crimes,” said the US-based group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Nevertheless, the tens of thousands who turned out to welcome him were overjoyed at seeing the pontiff up close.
Josephine Whitelaw and her husband Trevor from Adelaide, Australia, said they had stayed an extra day in Freiburg just to catch a glimpse of Benedict.
“He was really close,” she beamed.
Mario Piel, a 23-year-old Protestant from Stuttgart, said: “It was good to see a German pope. It’s a chance you get only once in a thousand years.”