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Benedict XVI speaks to flock that withstood Communism

Pilgrims arrive for Vespers in Etzelsbach, central Germany (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Pope Benedict presided over Vespers for 90,000 people gathered at the Marian shrine of Etzelbach on Friday evening.

The Marian sanctuary does not appear on most maps of Germany. But for Pope Benedict XVI, the tiny shrine looms large on the country’s religious landscape. Despite decades of persecution under Communism, this small Catholic community kept the faith.

The Pope travelled by helicopter to the pilgrimage site at the end of the second day of his trip to his German homeland. After addressing the German parliament, celebrating Mass in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium and holding a historic encounter with Lutheran leaders, the stop in Etzelsbach might have seemed an afterthought. But that would be to misread Pope Benedict’s priorities.

If the stated theme of his German visit was to remind a secularised society about God, here was a place where religious values remain strong , an island of belief in a sea of religious indifference and, for the Pope, well worth a pilgrimage.

A multitude turned out for the Pope, and it was a diverse crowd: school children and families, tattooed teenagers and elderly pilgrims from the Eichsfeld region, a small Catholic enclave.

Living under Communism has left many non-believers in this part of Germany, but a visitor would not know it from the crosses, chapels and roadside Stations of the Cross found in the group of villages surrounding Etzelsbach.

The Marian sanctuary owes its origins to a local tradition that is still well-remembered by pilgrims. About 400 years ago a farmer was plowing a field when he saw his horse fall repeatedly to its knees at the same spot. The farmer dug in the soil and found a wooden carving of Mary holding the dead Christ and with that the pilgrimages began.

Presiding at Vespers, the pope Prayed before the statue and spoke about its meaning in simple language.

“The hearts of Jesus and his mother are turned to one another; they come close to each other. They exchange their love,” he said.

He said Mary, with a mother’s tenderness, wants all people to respond to God’s love.

“When we allow God’s love to influence the whole of our lives, then heaven stands open. … Then the little things of everyday life acquire meaning, and great problems find solutions,” he said.