BERLIN (RNS) A German visiting Germany isn’t normally big news. Even if it’s a famous expatriate German returning home for a visit, such returns to the homeland are hardly front-page stories.
But this is a visit by Pope Benedict XVI and, strictly speaking, his first state visit as head of the Holy See to his native Germany. His trip in 2005 was strictly pastoral, for World Youth Day. His 2006 visit was personal, a sojourn to his home state of Bavaria. This time the protocol is a little more political.
Benedict, 84, is scheduled to meet this fall with Germany’s president and chancellor, as well as numerous Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim leaders, according to the Vatican.
Expectations are also ratcheting upwards. When the visit was first announced, there was talk of the pope hosting a Mass in Berlin’s historic Bebelplatz, which can hold hundreds.
But demand was greater than expected, so the planned Mass was moved to the Charlottenburg castle.
Then demand surpassed the castle’s capacity and the event was moved to Berlin’s Olympic stadium, with space for more than 74,000. The system distributing tickets for this and other events during the September 22-25 visit crashed due to heavy demand.
“As soon as the papal visit was announced, we went to the authorities and told them that a lot of Germans would be excited,” said Theodor Bolzenius, spokesman for the Central Committee of German Catholics. “You can see from the numbers that we were right.”
Despite the demand for tickets, it’s hard to discern much excitement in day-to-day life about the upcoming visit—nothing, at least, like 2005, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was named pope and headlines around the country—as well as a music video—proudly declared “Wir sind Papst!” (We are the pope).
Six years on, the fact of a German pope has become natural.
“The great euphoria is past,” says Simon Rapp, federal chaplain of the Association of German Catholic Youth. “After six years, it’s everyday that the pope is German.”
It doesn’t help that a lingering child abuse scandal that centered on church-run facilities continues to pop up in headlines, with new allegations of abuse and reports on the church’s efforts to compensate victims.
The best thing Benedict could do, says Rapp, is just speak clearly about the issues facing the church: the loss of membership; the ongoing abuse scandals; and the divisions between Catholic factions seeking liberalization and those that oppose change.
“He could just clearly say that he understands that we’re in a crisis,” said Rapp.
Christian Herwartz, who helps run the website Nacktesohlen (naked souls) agrees. “It has to be possible to air griefs.”
Forsa, a leading German polling agency, noted that trust in the pope plummeted nine percentage points, down to 29 percent, between 2010 and 2011. At the same time, trust in the Catholic church declined eight percentage points to 21 percent.
In advance of Benedict’s visit, the Association of German Catholic Youth and We are Church—Germany’s biggest Catholic reform movement—have called for rethinking the church’s stance on ordination of women and priestly celibacy, among other issues.
“If you read the surveys, it says that 80 percent of Catholics are for reforms,” said We are Church spokesman Christian Weisner. “Of course, it’s not like people are taking to the streets over this.”
Nonetheless, he said group members would hold one or two events before the visit to remind Benedict of their calls for liberalization on questions like gay ordination and women’s role in the church.
But Weisner said he doesn’t expect to receive any audience. “The ability of this pope to engage in dialogue seems to be pretty limited.
“There won’t be any access. … The expectations are very, very low.”
Websites like Nacktesohlen are asking how Benedict will handle meetings with President Christian Wulff, who is a divorced Catholic and other Catholic political leaders who buck church teaching.
“I hope for this kind of dialogue, where it might spark up,” said Herwartz.
This being Germany, the land of Martin Luther, a lot of attention will also focus on an ecumenical meeting between the pope and leaders of the Protestant church.
Although some expect little more than a photo opportunity to come out of the meeting, others said that even this symbolic meeting could be a chance for the pope to speak out in a country that is so often divided along Catholic-Protestant lines.
Rapp said that many Germans face the issue every day, living with or even marrying someone from the other faith.
“A statement that this is not abnormal would be good,” he said.