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Papal Visit

Catholics looking for answers during pope's visit to Germany

In his visit to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI can expect to meet an alienated laity. While there are some areas where dissatisfied Catholics can hope for reassurance, others have a snowball's chance in hell.

Papst Benedikt XVI. auf Staatsbesuch in Großbritannien

Anyone that's part of the Catholic Church has to be able to put up with a lot of grief.

More than 180,000 Catholics in Germany have left the church over the past year - almost 50 percent more than in 2009. Many were supporters of the progressive reform movement "We are church," which calls on the Vatican to reform autocratic structures; abolish obligatory celibacy; give women access to all church positions; celebrate communion with other faiths; allow the remarriage of divorced people; and develop a more comprehensive sex education.

All these issues are reasons for the sharp increase in the number of disaffected Catholics in Germany. But perhaps the biggest reason for the dramatic loss of trust is related to the sexual abuse of children and youths by church leaders. Stefan Vesper, general secretary of the Central Committee of German Catholics, emphasizes that the pope has played a positive role here.

"He was supportive for all of those who wanted to shed light on this issue," he said. "I believe that we are clearly further along because of his leadership."

Pope Benedict XVI must again address the issue of sexual abuse on his visit to Germany this week. To avoid it would be a mistake, says Hannelore Bartscherer. The devout Christian represents church members as head of the Catholic Committee of Cologne.

"The victims themselves expect him to speak out on the issue," she said.

Pope waves to crowds

Pope Benedict visited the World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005

No compromise by conservatives

The laity's expectations of their church differ largely from those of the pope. The gap between liberal to conservative is too wide. There are only a few commonalities in the long campaign for more input for congregants in Mass format, church life and important decision-making. On hot-button issues like women in the priesthood and celibacy, there is no hope for consensus anytime soon.

"I would caution against the impression made by many large organizations nowadays that Catholic positions are negotiable, or a question of majority opinion," said Nils Sönksen, a 25-year-old student and spokesman for the youth organization Generation Benedict.

The conservative media network of young Catholics emerged from the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne. Sönksen said he is convinced that the ban on women becoming priests "is an infallible church doctrine, and thus cannot possibly be changed by any successive pope."

More influence for laymen

Liberals Bartscherer and Vesper said they hope Benedict XVI will address the precarious position many congregations are in, with an ever-shrinking number of priests to serve them. Contact between priests and their congregants must occur on equal ground, said Bartscherer. Volunteers are standing ready to take on numerous responsibilities in church work.

"The pope said in a big speech that we have to understand: the laity are not somehow employees of their priests. Rather they are their own agents of the church," said Vesper. He adds that the Second Vatican Council declares that the laity play a "proper and indispensable role," which modern times demand "be broadened and intensified."

Pope at mass with Catholic bishop and Protestant pastor

The current pope has both damaged relations with, and reached out to Protestants

Ecumenical cooperation

Questions of ecumenism, namely relations with Protestants, have been put in the spotlight by the pope himself. On his own request, Benedict XVI is to meet with leaders of Protestant churches and celebrate an ecumenical service with them - without a common Eucharist, of course, because Catholic teachings forbid sharing the Last Supper with non-Catholics.

But according to Bartscherer, many Catholics have long dismissed some of the strict "thou shalt nots" that the Vatican has prescribed.

"Among the congregations, both Protestant and Catholic, there is an understood communal aspect of the celebration of Mass, including common celebration of the Last Supper and the Eucharist," said Bartscherer. "That is the reality. And this reality is lived out among the people, and they have no problem with it."

But Sönksen, of Generation Benedict, says he finds this to be wrong.

"We in Germany have convinced ourselves that if we just tweak this belief or slightly rework that doctrine that we'll automatically find common ground [with Protestants]," he said. "I find that absolutely impossible."

Sönksen says various denominations will discover their own similarities only on a path toward a deeper faith. Perhaps in this regard, Generation Benedict is more "papal" than Benedict himself.

Bartscherer sees the ecumenical opportunities with optimism.

"These are things we can influence," she said. "And when Pope Benedict encourages this, then that's enough to press forward on this path."

Author: Klaus Krämer / acb
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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