Pope Benedict gives a blessing after leading a prayer service at the Marian sanctuary of  Etzelsbach in Germany Sept. 23.

CNS PHOTO | ANDREW MEDICHINI, POOL VIA REUTERS

Pope Benedict gives a blessing after leading a prayer service at the Marian sanctuary of Etzelsbach in Germany Sept. 23.

October 3, 2011
JOHN THAVIS
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

On a four-day visit to Germany, Pope Benedict warned that godlessness and religious indifference are undermining the moral foundations of society and leaving its weakest members exposed to new risks.

He repeatedly mentioned the duty to protect the unborn, and proposed this as an area where Catholics and non-Catholics can witness together and help resist ethical erosion.

The pope, making his first official state visit to his homeland, said after arriving Sept. 22 that he had come "to meet people and to speak about God." He took that message to the country's political leaders, to the Church's ecumenical partners, to the Catholic faithful and, through the mass media, to the German people.

The 84-year-old pope at times looked tired during the heavy program of events, but generally held up well.

The pope's main event in Berlin was his speech to the German parliament, the first time he has addressed a legislative body. Although dozens of parliamentarians boycotted the event, he received a standing ovation from the assembly.

The pope's speech, philosophical in tone, argued that belief in God was the foundation for Western progress in law, social justice and human rights through the centuries.

Pilgrims walk to an evening prayer service with Pope Benedict at the Marian sanctuary of Etzelsbach in Germany Sept.23.

CNS PHOTO | ALEX DOMANSKI, REUTERS

Pilgrims walk to an evening prayer service with Pope Benedict at the Marian sanctuary of Etzelsbach in Germany Sept.23./h3>

Germany's Nazi past, he said, illustrates that without justice, the state becomes "a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss."

DRAMATIC THREAT

Today, he said, with unprecedented opportunities to manipulate human beings, the threat is even more dramatic. He pointed to Germany's ecology movement as a step in the right direction, but said an "ecology of man" was needed to protect human dignity.

The pope later met with Jewish representatives and recalled the Nazi "reign of terror" in his homeland, saying it showed what people are capable of when they deny God.

"The supposedly 'almighty' Adolf Hitler was a pagan idol, who wanted to take the place of the biblical God, the creator and father of all men," he said.

The pope also met with five sex abuse victims in Erfurt, an encounter that the Vatican said left the pontiff "moved and deeply shaken."

ECUMENICAL EVENTS

The pope presided over major ecumenical events Sept. 23 in Erfurt, the town where Martin Luther was ordained and site of an Augustinian monastery where he lived for several years.

Meeting with Lutheran leaders, the pope prayed for Christian unity and said ecumenism today faces threats from both secularization and Christian fundamentalism.

"God is increasingly being driven out of our society. . . . Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith?" he said.

In encounters with the faithful in Erfurt and Freiburg, the pope did not enter into details of the contentious issues that have divided German Catholics, such as priestly celibacy, women's ordination and Church teaching on homosexuality.

Pope Benedict is welcomed by the Rev. Nikolaus Schneider, head of the Evangelical Church in Germany, in a former monastery in Erfurt Sept. 23.

CNS PHOTO | NORBERT NEETZ, POOL VIA REUTERS

Pope Benedict is welcomed by the Rev. Nikolaus Schneider, head of the Evangelical Church in Germany, in a former monastery in Erfurt Sept. 23.

Instead, he preached the importance of living the Gospel and held out German saints as models of the "radical" embrace of Christ.

SPIRITUAL STRENGTH

Addressing German lay leaders in Freiburg Sept. 24, the pope said the Church in Germany was clearly "superbly organized."

Then he asked: "But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength?" He suggested that small Christian communities may be the most promising path toward renewing the Church's impact on society.

At a Mass on his final day in Freiburg, the pope told an estimated 100,000 people that agnostics who are troubled by the question of God are closer to the kingdom of God than "routine" Catholics whose hearts are untouched by faith.

He said the Church in Germany would make an impact in society only if everyone works together "in fidelity to their respective vocations" and in unity with their bishop and the pope.

In a meeting afterward with Catholics involved in Church institutions, lay movements and political life, the pope said history has shown that when it is liberated from organizational and political burdens, the Church's "missionary witness shines more brightly."