'I am an old man. At least one more time, I am getting to see my homeland'

Posted in Europe | 11-Sep-06 | Author: Jess Smee| Source: The Guardian (UK)

Pope Benedict XVI waves to pilgrims after conducting a mass Munich's fairground September 10, 2006.

· Pope's trip to Bavaria attracts 250,000 to mass
· Visits will include graves of parents and sister

Pope Benedict XVI yesterday warned an increasingly secular Europe to wake up to God when he celebrated open-air mass in his homeland of Bavaria.

It was the first mass of a nostalgic trip for the 79-year-old, who says his "heart beats for Bavaria". The 250,000-strong Munich crowd was made up of pilgrims from across Europe, young families waving flags and locals in traditional Lederhosen.

"There is a hardness of hearing where God is concerned, and this is something from which we particularly suffer in our times," the Pope said, looking out over the yellow and white flags of the Vatican and the blue and white flags of Bavaria. There were also German, Mexican, Croatian and Polish banners.

Commentators said the pontiff appeared more at ease than on his first visit to Germany after taking over from Pope John Paul II in April 2005, when he received what the press described as a popstar's welcome at World Youth Day in Cologne.

His whistle-stop tour of Germany's Catholic heartland combines public events, such as Saturday's greeting by the president, Horst Köhler, and the chancellor, Angela Merkel, with a personal tour of the sights and sounds of his childhood.

His itinerary includes a day with his brother and a visit to the graves of his parents and sister.

The Pope will travel in the popemobile, stopping off at his birthplace, Marktl, an unassuming Bavarian village near the Austrian border. The recently renovated house where he was born was vandalised yesterday with blue paint.

Commentators say the personal nature of the Bavaria tour will boost the Pope's already solid standing among Germans, making him look gentler and helping him shake off nicknames such as "panzer cardinal" and the "enforcer" emanating from his arch-conservative views.

"Since last year he's gained in popularity. Back then he was seen as an uncompromising hardliner but he now seems softer and more reserved," said Rainer Kampling, a theologian and expert on the Pope at Berlin's Free University.

The Pope commands respect from a wide cross-section of Germans, believers and non-believers, a mood captured by the mass-circulation tabloid Bild, which celebrated his election with the headline, We are the Pope.

The route of the Pope's tour is littered with evidence of his reputation: towns and villages have preened themselves for his visit and residents are wearing T-shirts depicting his image. Merchandising is in top gear. Local shops are baking bread rolls called pope's caps and Benedict dolls with grey hair and fully moveable limbs are being sold for €139 (£100). Some outlets are even offering a 10% "pope discount".

In Germany, which has roughly equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants, many attribute Pope Benedict's popularity to his sticking to his opinions and not being swayed by political messages or media pressure.

But such unwavering convictions, especially his staunch aversion to abortion and gay marriage, have also won him enemies.

Gay rights supporters are planning demonstrations to coincide with his Bavarian tour. And liberal commentators have expressed unease at the general unquestioning enthusiasm for the pontiff, asking why he does not venture beyond the conservative state of Bavaria.

Speaking to reporters on the plane to Germany, the Pope said his biggest priority was reacquainting himself with his roots. "I am an old man," he said. "I don't know how much time the Lord will grant me ... At least one more time, I am getting to see my homeland."