A Life at Odds With the Germans | News and current affairs from Germany and around the world | DW | 03.04.2005

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A Life at Odds With the Germans

Pope John Paul II's only travel abroad this year was supposed to be to Germany. In the country of the Reformation, the first pope from Poland had strained relations with both Catholics and non-Catholics in Germany.

The pope and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in 2003

The pope and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in 2003

Karol Jozef Wojtyla's first contact with Germany and Germans came under the most horrendous circumstances. He lived with his father in Krakow when Nazi Germany launched World War II by invading Poland.

The future pope said that his father once told him, "I will not live long and would like to be certain before I die that you will commit yourself to God's service."

Bundespräsident Johannes Rau trifft im Vatikan Papst Johannes Paul II

Pope John Paul II talks to German President Johannes Rau during their meeting at the Vatican, Saturday, March 6, 2004

His father's will became reality. In 1943, he entered an underground seminary in Krakow. In 1946, one year after the war had ended, one year after Poland had regained its independence from the Nazi dictatorship, Karol Jozef Wojtyla was ordained.

Throughout his life, Karol Jozef Wojtyla refused to begrudge the Germans. Instead he wanted to pass on his memories of the Nazi terror to the generation that did not have to experience it in order to ensure that such a horror was never repeated.

John Paul celebrates German unification

Wojtyla's contact with Germany remained minimal in the years before he became pope in 1978. After taking up the papacy, however, he traveled to the country three times. And when the Berlin Wall fell and the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) were reunited as a single Germany, Pope John Paul II rejoiced.

In his third and only visit to a unified Germany, he visited the capital Berlin in 1996. There, John Paul II walked side-by-side with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl through the Brandenburg Gate and to what was once the inner-German border. There, he gave a moving speech over the meaning of freedom.

Johannes Paul II. am Brandenburger Tor mit Galeriebild

Pope John Paul with Helmut Kohl and Eberhard Diepgen (left to right) standing at the gate that once divided Germany

"The closed Brandenburg Gate once stood as a symbol of separation. When it was finally opened, it became a symbol of unity -- and as a symbol of the demand of the German constitution for a united and free Germany, determined by free will. Thus, we can justifiably say that the Brandenburg Gate has become the gate of freedom," John Paul II told the German people on June 23, 1996.

Pope viewed cautiously in Germany

Despite his committment to bringing down communism and uniting Germany and Europe, the pope had a difficult relationship with Germans. Protestant Germans, who make up about half of the population, and even many Catholics are increasingly critical of the Vatican's conservative stance on on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and Aids. Many regard the Pope's teachings as out of touch with modern reality.

Der Papst surft

Many say Pope John Paul II is too conservative but he is open to new things -- here he is sending an e-mail

Just as exasperating to Germans are the hurdles thrown up by the Vatican to prevent a deeper ecumenical understanding. Germans and the Papacy generally misunderstand each other, a point which Cologne's conservative Cardinal Joachim Meisner makes. "In many countries people gratefully take note of the pope's prophetic power, and even praise it," Meisner said. "Unfortunately, German-speaking countries make the exception."

Another point of conflict is the protection of life. Catholics and indeed most Germans applauded when John Paul II criticized the use of force against Iraq. But, when John Paul attacked the use of force against unborn children, many Catholic Germans didn't want to hear it. The pope's stance -- protection of all humans as well as embryos -- may be consistent; but it's too inflexible for those who think that unwanted abortions could be avoided if the Catholic Church would counsel on birth control and better family planning. Instead, the Vatican banned the counseling service for unwanted pregnancies, something that some representatives in the German Catholic Church couldn't comprehend.

Other sticking points include the suspension of teaching privileges of some prominent, more liberal German theologians. Despite such decisions that many might understand as discriminatory towards Germany, never before have there been so many Germans in the College of Cardinals -- exactly the body that will name John Paul's successor.

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