BERLIN (RNS) Thousands of people turned out Thursday (Sept. 22) for Pope Benedict XVI’s first official visit to his native Germany, although at times it was hard to tell if people were there to welcome him or denounce him.
There were protests all across Berlin on Thursday as hundreds of demonstrators rallied against church policies on homosexuality and an alleged cover-up of sex abuse at Catholic institutions. Others of a more theological bent gathered to voice their concerns that the church is not modernizing enough to remain a vital institution.

Yet Benedict was feted nonetheless as a returning hero, with audiences with the German president and chancellor, the first speech by a pope before the German parliament and an evening Mass for tens of thousands of faithful at Berlin’s historic Olympic Stadium.

His message was one of unity, that Europe—as much as it might want to—cannot turn its back on its Christian background.

“Sometimes we feel, in our hour of need, that we’ve been left in the cold,” he preached to a crowd of 61,000 during the stadium Mass. “It’s important that we stay in Christ.

“In Christ, we belong together. We help each other through the storm. Whoever believes is not alone. Whoever believes is with the whole church.”

German media interpreted the pope’s remarks about the church being one of God’s greatest gifts as a call for the faithful not to abandon the church, as many have done in recent years, especially over growing concerns over the sex abuse crisis.

The pope touched on European ideals during a speech to the German parliament, in which he argued that the rule of law in Germany and across Europe was founded on basic, universal principles that are reflected in God, even if modern society seeks to deny it at times.

“We cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials,” he said. “Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.”

The speech was met with applause, especially when he praised the German environmental movement—a strong political lightning rod. But even here there were protests, as some left-wing legislators boycotted the session. The pope seemed to take the protests in stride, telling reporters that protest was natural in a democracy.

Still, the visit was laden with the occasional awkwardness confronting modern Catholicism in Germany as Benedict held official visits with Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a gay Catholic, and German President Christian Wulff, a divorced Catholic, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Lutheran.

Benedict has visited his native Germany twice since his 2005 election, but previous visits were personal or pastoral in nature. This week’s four-day visit is his first to Germany as a head of state.

The visit has spurred excitement; the tabloid newspaper Bild printed a building-sized poster of its cover from the day after Benedict was named pope, and Thursday’s stadium Mass had to be moved twice to accommodate ever larger crowds.

On Friday, Benedict travels to the central German city of Erfurt, where he will engage in ecumenical dialogues with leaders of the Protestant church near the heart of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation.

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