Arriving in Germany for a four-day visit, Pope Benedict XVI has warned that growing indifference to religious values is threatening true freedom and replacing it with a purely individualistic culture.
In his first speech in Berlin the Pope said he had come to remind the German people of their “responsibility before God and before one another”. He said this perspective was essential in a world that was losing the sense of social solidarity.
The world, he said, needed “a profound cultural renewal and the rediscovery of fundamental values upon which to build a better future”.
The Pope made the remarks at a welcoming ceremony hosted by President Christian Wulff at the Bellevue Palace, the presidential residence, shortly after he landed in the German capital.
Speaking to reporters on his flight from Rome, he said he recognised that increasing numbers of Catholics in Germany were leaving the Church. Some, he said, were motivated by revelations of “terrible” scandals, a reference to priestly sex abuse cases that have come to light over the last two years.
The Pope said he could understand their feelings. But he said that if they accepted the Church as the “people of God” and not as a typical social organisation, Catholics should “withstand and work against these scandals, precisely because they are on the inside”.
He was greeted as he stepped off his plane by Mr Wulff and Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Pope smiled as a boy and a girl presented him with a bouquet of flowers.
A small group of Catholics cheered on the edge of the tarmac, and small cannons boomed out a 21-gun salute. It was the German Pontiff’s third trip as Pope to his homeland and his first official state visit.
At the ceremony in the manicured gardens of Bellevue Palace, the Pope was applauded by nearly 1,000 civil dignitaries and ecclesiastical leaders. He looked happy and relaxed as he walked through a receiving line with the president and watched a 350-soldier honour guard march past.
In his speech, the Pope said he had not come to propose political or economic strategies, but simply “to meet people and to speak about God”.
“We are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society, which considers the issue of truth as something of an obstacle in its decision-making, and instead gives priority to utilitarian considerations,” he said. Yet history – including Germany’s own “dark pages” – showed that religion is one of the foundations for successful social life, he said.
“Freedom requires a primordial link to a higher instance. The fact that there are values which are not absolutely open to manipulation is the true guarantee of our freedom,” he said.
In his speech to the Pope Mr Wulff, 52, said that although the Church’s message was not always an easy one, it was needed in modern society. The recent economic crisis had left many Germans searching for meaning in their lives, he said, and the Church was in a position to offer answers.
He added that the Church itself was challenged by important questions today: “How compassionately will it treat points of rupture in the lives of individuals? How will it approach points of rupture in its own history or the wrongdoing of members of its clergy?”
Mr Wulff, a Catholic, is divorced and civilly remarried. He told newspapers that he would ask the Pope to be more understanding towards people in that situation.
During his on-board press conference with reporters on the flight from Rome, the Pope answered four pre-submitted questions. He spoke candidly about the challenges facing the church in Germany and said the Church’s problems needed to be seen in the context of widespread secularisation.
When people left the Church, he said, it’s usually the last step in a long process that has multiple causes.
German Church officials have acknowledged a steep drop in religious practice in recent years, with record low numbers of Catholics attending Mass regularly, baptising their children and marrying in the Church.
Over the last 35 years, the number of German Catholics has dropped from more than 30 million to fewer than 25 million, and during the last year – which saw new revelations of priestly sex abuse in German dioceses – approximately 180,000 Catholics formally left the Church.
Asked if he still considered himself a German, the Pope answered yes, saying “one’s roots cannot be cut”. The question reflected a theme running through pre-trip coverage in the German media. The weekly Der Spiegel, for example, ran a cover story on the pope under the headline, “The Stranger”.
Pope Benedict told reporters that despite opposition to the Church’s message and its teachings, he was convinced there was still “great expectation and great love for the Pope” among Germans, along with a growing sense that society needs morality.
The Pope’s first day in Berlin is a particularly demanding one. Later he is scheduled to address the German parliament, meet representatives of the country’s Jewish community and celebrate Mass in the city’s Olympic Stadium.