Today, for the first time, Benedict XVI is entering the land of the Reformation

President Christian Wulff, right, and Chancellor Angela Merkel welcome Benedict XVI at Tegel airport this morning (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

When the Holy Father landed in Berlin Tegel this morning, he began the third visit to Germany of his papacy. But this time it’s different. Not only is it Pope Benedict XVI’s first state visit to his home country, it is also his first foray outside of Germany’s Catholic strongholds into the land of the Reformation.

While the German tabloid, Die Bild Zeitung, has enthusiastically decorated its Berlin HQ with the world’s largest Pope poster (18 stories high), German newspapers report that tens of thousands of protestors will greet the Pope today. Nearly 100 German parliamentarians, mainly from the Leftist Social Democrat Party and the Green party, intend to boycott Benedict’s speech to Germany’s Bundestag, the lower house, because they claim his speech goes against the country’s separation of Church and state. But organisers have said that they’ve had more people asking for tickets for the Holy Father’s speech in the German parliament than people cancelling. After the two German atheistic totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, Berlin’s religiosity is unsurprisingly low: two thirds of Berlin’s inhabitants have no religious affiliation.

Pope Benedict’s three main stops on this visit mark interesting moments in Germany’s Catholic history. Berlin, city of museums and memorials, is the obvious testament to Germany’s inglorious 20th-century history. But it is also a very young diocese, founded in 1930 after the Prussian Concordat. The concordat was a document negotiated by Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, which allowed for the formation of more Catholic dioceses in Protestant Prussia. Although the archdiocese has only a small amount of Catholic faithful, its establishment marked the end of restrictive measures against Catholics which followed Bismarck’s bitter culture wars against the Catholic Church after Germany’s unification in 1871.

One of Berlin’s first bishops, Konrad Cardinal von Preysing, a sometimes pedantic but brave Bavarian diplomat and lawyer, described the Berliner Catholics as “unemotional and tough” when he arrived. They proved to be some of the most courageous and outspoken Catholics in the face of National Socialism.

It is perhaps apt that the Pope should meet representatives of the German Lutheran Churches in Erfurt for the ecumenical leg of his trip. Erfurt is perhaps one of Germany’s youngest dioceses, founded after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is predominantly Protestant. Martin Luther studied at the University of Erfurt and joined an Augustinian canonry there. Catholics and Protestants celebrate a joint-“MartinsTag” on November 10, to mark the Feast of St Martin de Tours and the anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth. The dialogue between the Catholic and German Protestant Churches has worsened over the years, with poor relations hitting a low point last year when Dr Margot Kaessmann, the former head of the Lutheran churches, called for Catholics to embrace contraception during an ecumenical meeting in Munich.

The Pope’s last stop, in the Archdiocese of Freiburg, also resonates. He is the first pope to visit Freiburg since the deposed pope fled from Konstanz to Freiburg in 1415. The region, which incorporates the former Protestant Grand-Duchy of Baden, is mixed Catholic and Protestant, but accounts for about two million of Germany’s 24 million Catholics and is Germany’s second largest archdiocese. Baden was one of the sites of the German culture war’s first battles between the Catholic Church and ruling Protestant powers. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the head of the German Bishops’ Conference is the bishop of the diocese.

Here the Holy Father is due to meet the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZDK), a coalition of lay Catholics involved in diocesan councils, parish councils and other aspects of lay ministry. The group is recognised by the German Bishops’ Conference. Alois Glueck, the president of the ZDK, called for the end of priestly celibacy last year and the group has been in favour of the ordination of women.

According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Pope Benedict XVI will also meet victims of clergy sexual abuse during his visit this week. Germany was shaken by an unfolding abuse scandal in January last year which caused countless Germans already alienated from the Church to leave it officially.

Questions about the visit’s cost, which is being carried by the Catholic Church in Germany, the Pope’s legitimacy and controversial issues such as the use of contraception and the ordination of women have all been aired in the public arena. The fault lines in a Church with a liberal establishment, low rates of practice and a conservative grassroots movement are beginning to show. The Holy Father’s visit is bound to be interesting.