Pope's trip to Germany to focus
on 500-year Christian split
By JEAN-BAPTISTE PIGGIN
Kansas City Star - www.kansascity.com
Pope Benedict XVI has an appointment with history this week when he meets Protestant leaders at the place where Martin Luther first began thinking about the Reformation nearly 500 years ago.
The head of the Catholic Church is not expected to repeal Luther's 1521 excommunication. But Protestants will be listening to the pope's every word for some sign of detente.
During his four-day trip to Germany, Benedict will also be addressing the parliament in Berlin and will have the meetings with other faiths and sex-abuse victims that have become an obligatory part of so many of his trips abroad.
But the historic high point of the visit, from Thursday to Sunday, will be Friday's half-hour in a vaulted room in the former Augustinian Monastery, a hallowed site of Protestant history, in Erfurt, in central Germany.
Luther (1483-1546) entered this monastery in 1505 to become a Catholic monk, rejecting his father's wish to become a lawyer.
This was the place where, for three years, his conscience was first torn about how sin could be forgiven, leading to his radical break with Rome in 1517 at Wittenberg. The split in western Christendom soon spread to England and other nations.
The room to be used Friday, now restored to its 14th-century white and brown color scheme, was the sole place in the monastery in Luther's day where men could talk and debate freely.
Ecumenism, the idea of re-uniting Christianity, has hit hard times after a flowering four decades ago. Suspicion rules on both sides.
In the eyes of many senior Vatican officials, Germany is the homeland of the Protestant Reformation and still Lutheran territory.
Even German Catholics, who are a minority, sometimes sing Lutheran hymns in church and have a reputation for rebellion.
Lutherans are resentful that the Vatican does not describe them as a "church" and denies them communion if they visit a Catholic mass.
The welcome speeches by Germany's most senior Lutheran leaders, several of them women, and Benedict's reply, will be carefully scripted, and may turn out to be bland. Many say the simple fact that Benedict is entering a Lutheran sanctum as a guest is the message.
He will afterward pray at an ecumenical service in the site's chapel where Luther was ordained a Catholic priest.
Erfurt also marks another front line in history: the struggle behind the Iron Curtain between deeply religious people and Soviet-led communism.
Catholics living in the nearby countryside were the most stubborn in communist East Germany in resisting atheism. Benedict is to pray at one of their chapels of pilgrimage, at Etzelsbach, later on Friday.
The day will begin in Berlin with another closely watched meeting by the pope. A group of German Muslim leaders will call on him inside the apostolic nunciature, the Vatican embassy in Berlin.
Benedict's last visit to Germany, five years ago, strained Catholic-Islamic relations.
In a Sept. 12, 2006, lecture, Benedict argued that God never demand what is unreasonable, and quoted an unfavorable remark about Islam by a 14th-century Byzantine emperor. In Muslim nations, violent protesters wrecked churches and injured Christians in response.
The conflict had one positive outcome: Muslims and Christians became more polite to one another.
"There's been a relatively busy dialogue since," said Peter Huenseler, a Catholic official overseeing contact in Germany.
Although German by birth, Benedict, 84, cannot count on the easy reception that his predecessor John Paul II always had in his own homeland, Poland. The German Catholic Church is shrinking in size.
Of the 24.6 million registered German Catholics, only about one in eight attend Sunday Mass more than a couple of times a year.
Meanwhile, gay rights campaigners and anti-church groups plan to hold noisy demonstrations against the pope.
About 100 opposition politicians who object to Catholic teachings plan to boycott an address by the pope to the Bundestag, or parliament, on Thursday.
Parliamentary officials are inviting ex-members to attend and occupy the seats left empty.
On Saturday, the pope will fly to Freiburg, in Germany's south-western corner, where he will celebrate a large outdoor mass before returning home on Sunday.
Some 260,000 Catholics have tickets to hear the pope's masses in the three cities. Security is too tight to allow spontaneous attendance.
Since becoming pope, Benedict has visited his homeland twice in his capacity as a religious leader, but this time he will be honored as head of state of the Vatican, with the German government paying for the security and the church paying for venues and hospitality.