The election of a German pope has revived the once flagging fortunes of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, bringing people back to the fold and inspiring the affection of younger worshippers, observers say.
The pope was received enthusiastically in Germany in August
The popularity of Benedict XVI's predecessor John Paul II in Germany had waned towards the end of his pontificate. He won enthusiastic support here for his defense of human rights but sparked anger with his public admonishment of the church's involvement in abortion advice clinics in the country.
The election of Bavarian-born Joseph Ratzinger a year ago appears to have come at the right time for the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, which, though it boasts 26 million members, was seeing church attendance decline at an alarming rate.
Benedict XVI's visit to Cologne last August for the World Youth Day festival proved that the shyness for which the former Cardinal Ratzinger was well-known would not hamper his reception by the public. He received an enthusiastic welcome on his first visit to his homeland since his election. The tone was set when thousands of teenagers waded into the waters of the Rhine to get a closer look as the pontiff passed on a ferry, and one million young people, the majority of them Germans, took part in the closing mass.
The organizers of the pope's upcoming visit to Bavaria in August are confident of a similar reception.
Pope Bendikt XVI met with famous church dissident Hans Küng in September
Even beyond Catholic circles, the pope has been good for the church locally. While 59 percent of Catholics believe his election has boosted the Catholic Church in Germany, 54 percent of agnostics and 52 percent of Protestants share the same view, according to a recent survey for the Neue Bildpost. A quarter of Germans believe it is important that the pope is one of them, and 37 percent view him as moderately reform-minded, while 45 percent believe he is highly conservative.
Germans traditionally suspicious of popes
It has played in Benedict's favor that he is a German theologian who has mastered the subtleties of contemporary thinking on religion in a country where a traditional suspicion of popes remains high. But while he has drawn praise for setting a new tone, critics such as the anti-establishment group "We Are Church" say he has taken an "ambivalent" stance on issues that matter to Germans.
"He has engaged in thinking about the role of women in the church but does not want them to be ordained. And he has held audiences with the anti-authority theologian Hans Küng but has seen traditionalists in far greater numbers," said "We Are Church" spokesman Christian Weisner. "Benedict XVI promotes ecumenism with the Orthodox church but not with Protestants, and talks fulsomely about love in an encyclical yet forbids homosexuals from becoming priests."
Renowned theologian and psychoanalyst Eugen Drewermann lost patience with the pope and left the Catholic Church in December.
Still, churches closing
While some observers saw the World Youth Day festival as having little lasting impact, the head of the Catholic Church in Germany, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, sees a direct link with rising church attendance. He told Der Spiegel magazine that the number of members leaving the church had reduced by a third in 2005 compared with the previous year, and there were "three times as many new worshippers, most of whom were returning to the church."
Even non-Catholics believe the pope has boosted the church in Germany
The south of the country, especially the states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate remain strongly Catholic.
But the effect of a German pope has done little to reverse predictions from the German Bishops' Conference that 700 Catholic churches will cease to be used as places of worship over the next decade.
Religious affiliation is relatively simple to measure in Germany because believers must register to pay church tax.