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from issue no. 10 - 2011

Apostolic journey to Germany

The Pope remains true to himself: bear witness to your faith

The words of Pope Benedict XVI in his native land may be read as an earnest appeal to return to the essentials and to draw conclusions from this. So says Hans-Gert Pöttering former president of the European Parliament

by Hans-Gert Pöttering

Benedict XVI visiting the Bundestag, in Berlin, 22 September 2011 [© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI visiting the Bundestag, in Berlin, 22 September 2011 [© Osservatore Romano]


The visit of Benedict XVI was a moving event. A German Pope came to his native land. He brought a profoundly theological message: the renewal of the Church can only occur through the openness to conversion and from a renewed faith. He spoke so passionately and convincingly of God, so much so that it was surprising even from a theologian successor of Peter such as Benedict XVI.
His speech to the German Bundestag in Berlin at the beginning of his visit was especially significant. On that occasion he discussed the essence of political activity, the basis of law and the distinction between good and evil. He set his reflections within the context of the great traditions of European thought: Greek philosophy, Roman law and Jewish Biblical faith in God, that form the “profound identity of Europe”. In the search for a common foundation for the construction of its own law Europe should not limit itself to a purely positivistic vision. This is a reduction of the entire human reality. He compared such a limitation to a concrete building with no windows. Cut off from everything that happens outside, mankind atrophies. Whereas, in a global vision, it could gather all the influences. Here the ‘ecology of mankind’ came into play, as in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate. The emergence of the environmental movement was an “invocation of fresh air” that needed to be heeded. Mankind should listen to the language of nature. If he pays attention to it and accepts it as something that is not produced by himself, man’s freedom finds fulfillment. But since the rules can only come from the will, they presuppose the recognition of the “creating reason” of God. And Benedict XVI asked in an almost defiant manner “Is it really without sense to ask oneself whether the objective reason, that is expressed in nature, does not presuppose a creating reason, a Creator Spiritus?”.
The Pope insisted particularly with the politicians on the example of King Solomon, who had wanted a “docile heart” so he might search for the true law to serve justice and peace. Since the Pope’s speech to the Bundestag was primarily theological and about principle, he did not address the specific needs of the German Church on that occasion, although many had expected and hoped for this. His speech at the Konzerthaus in Freiburg, which irritated some, was quite different. There he addressed the German Church predominantly. He invited his hearers to focus on essentials, leaving aside all reasoning of an institutional nature. The concept of ‘worldliness’ might be misunderstood, but these thoughts of Benedict XVI are not new. He had already expressed them in the late ’sixties. They express a basic vision, self-criticism on the whole Church. He understood it in a historical perspective and drew attention to the fact that the witness of the Church would be clearer if it were free “of material and political burdens”. Then it could better devote itself to Christian values ​​in the real world, be truly open to the world. The Church would be more credible the more it concentrated on its own specific area, on its central message.
The Pope had conceived all this, as he himself said, not as a new tactic to get more consideration for the Church, but as the will to seek “complete sincerity, that censors nothing of the truth of our day, but fully realizes the faith in today”.

Benedict XVI at the end of the Mass celebrated in the parvis of the Cathedral of Erfurt, 24 September <BR>[© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI at the end of the Mass celebrated in the parvis of the Cathedral of Erfurt, 24 September
[© Osservatore Romano]

The Germans particularly, as pointed out by the Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau Robert Zollitsch, should not allow themselves to be diverted, through their zealous organizing, structuring and reforming, from this search for God. However, since the Pope did not give other practical indications about what he meant by “worldly burdens” there is need for further talks and discussions about what consequences are to be drawn so as to promote the faith as the Pope indicated. It will be seen in the next few months whether it is to be understood as a rejection of the German system of worship tax and successfully working Church-State relationship, as some have interpreted pushing a lot further ahead, or whether his speech was no more than a heartfelt appeal to return to basics and draw the consequences from them.
This invitation to focus on the essentials of the biblical message was not addressed only to Catholics in Germany, but also to Europe. An area in which the conditions of coexistence of Church and State over the centuries have developed in very different fashion. In this regard it should be recalled that Article 17 of the Treaty of Lisbon guarantees every European country the continuance of its traditional relationship between State and Church. It is crucial to keep up the dialogue with the Churches and introduce into our policies the urgings that the Pope gave us specifically in Germany. It is a matter of the implementation of Christian values in political practice.
In fact, Benedict XVI promoted just that in his homilies: faith in God should not be something private, but should manifest itself in society. He encouraged Christians to engage fruitfully in society and be as yeast. It is a question of imprinting the social debate with Christian values, but also with accommodating mankind’s concerns and giving them backing. This the Pope said in his homily at Freiburg, the city of Caritas. Here he explicitly thanked all those who care for their neighbor in the kindergartens and schools, but also for the needy and disabled in the many social and charitable institutions in Germany and worldwide. This is a very important drive for politicians especially. Faith has consequences for our society and our public activity. Because of this it is necessary from now on that Catholics engage in politics, in the economy and in society and also in social services that provide concrete help.
In relation to this aspect, in Erfurt he praised the commitment of Christians who because of their faith had opposed the totalitarian regime in the GDR. Despite adverse circumstances, they remained faithful to Christ. Even now in East Germany new ways are being sought to promote the Christian faith in circumstances significantly remote from the faith and to speak specifically to those seeking guidance and answers to the ultimate questions.
The bridge that Benedict XVI laid down toward Muslims in the meeting in Berlin shows that the Pontiff casts himself specifically as ‘bridge builder’ for the public practice of religion. He said quite explicitly that he wished Muslims would contribute to the common good on the basis of their religion, and out of their faith defend the cause of peaceful coexistence in society. Here, too, the recognition of our type of relationship between State and religion is reflected, a relation which should also be available to Muslims.
Precisely because this trip was for the Pope above all about a deepening of faith, the desire for rapid concrete changes inevitably had to be disappointed. And this also applies to the issue of ecumenism with the Evangelical Church in Germany. It was already in itself an important sign, a stage of historic importance that the Pope met the representatives of the Evangelical Church in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. It is a place of great symbolic importance for German Protestants. There, Martin Luther lived and worked. Because of this the gesture itself was a sign of openness. Insistently and with an eye to the future, the Pope quoted Luther in his search for a merciful God. Here he saw a glimpse of the great matters shared by the faiths as opposed to the secularized world: the great Churches must respond to the quest for God and must keep alive the quest of God in the secularized world. Here Benedict spoke of the foundations of Christian faith in response to the existential questions ‘where do we come from’ and ‘where are we going’.
Benedict XVI with Nikolaus Schneider, President of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, 23 September  [© Afp/Getty Images]

Benedict XVI with Nikolaus Schneider, President of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, 23 September [© Afp/Getty Images]

However, many had hoped that the Pope would take an “unambiguous step in overcoming the division between the Churches”, as Norbert Lammert, President of the Bundestag, put it. In fact – in the words of Archbishop Robert Zollitsch – it is necessary to wait for the German Bishops’ Conference to translate the fundamental reflections of the Pope and, together with representatives of the Evangelical Church in Germany, to find a way forward to a deepening of ecumenism. Nikolaus Schneider, president of the ‘Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany’, spoke of an ‘ecumenism of gifts’ and proposed this as a way to continue the journey together. It is to be hoped that the problems related to the shared life of faith in marriages and families made up of members of different Christian denominations, but also the limitations for the divorced and remarried, can be reconsidered after the Pope’s visit and that realistic steps of reconciliation can be made.
There questions left open are many: it is certainly too early to draw up a balance sheet. The results of multiple and intense meetings with the Pope, the urging and the pleas he presented will be thought about in discussions and debates in the coming weeks and months. There it will be seen how the Church in Germany can survive at the present time and how the individual faithful can be witnesses to the faith in their milieu.
For me, as a politician and as a Catholic, the invitation remains to reflect on the principles of my politics in the light of the suggestions that the Pope made during his visit. Benedict XVI with his message, not always easy, not always comfortable, has led us Germans to reflect. We owe him deep gratitude for his words, for the encouragement to live the faith, for the visit to his native land.

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