Pope Benedict XVI divided the capital of his native land on Thursday, celebrating Mass for more than 60,000 followers while thousands of opponents marched through the streets to protest his visit.
Protesters gathered in Potsdamer Platz, just a mile from the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, where Benedict addressed members in the afternoon. The police estimated that 9,000 had gathered to register their disapproval of church policies. Demonstrators aired a wide range of criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church and Benedict, its leader, on subjects that included the role of women in the church, gay rights and victims of sexual abuse by priests.
Dozens of members of Parliament boycotted his address. “Never before in history has a pope spoken before an elected German Parliament,” said Norbert Lammert, the president of the Bundestag, who invited the pope to address lawmakers. “And seldom has a speech in this house created so much attention and interest before it was even given.”
Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, had addressed the Italian Parliament and several others, and last year Benedict spoke before the British political establishment in Westminster Hall, but the address on Thursday was his first before a legislative body.
The church in Germany was rocked by the revelation last year of hundreds of previously unreported cases of sexual and physical abuse of children by members of the clergy and other church employees. But the declining standing of the church here is as much about an increasingly secular society.
“I have no idea why the pope should be talking in our parliament,” said Uwe Meissner, 52, among thousands of protesters gathered to oppose Benedict’s address. “I thought we had separation of church and state here in our country.”
Those expecting a controversial address were most likely disappointed. In comments that verged at times on the academic, the theologian pope spoke about the importance of responsibility of political leaders, and touched on several themes at the heart of his papacy: the fight against secularism and relativism. He also called for a debate on ethics.
The leading voices opposing his appearance included the Green Party. Hans-Christian Ströbele, a Green Party lawmaker, stood up and left as the speech began. Benedict then singled his party out for praise.
“The emergence of the ecological movement in German politics since the 1970s,” Benedict said, represented a “cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside.” His comments prompted a burst of spontaneous applause, though he noted that he was not engaging in “propaganda” for any particular political party, leading to laughter on the floor.
Dozens of members of the far-left Left Party as well as some Social Democrats boycotted the event.
Benedict returned to his native Germany for the third time since becoming pope in 2005, but it was his first official state visit. Attitudes have changed sharply since he was first named pope, and Germans, whether Catholic or not, celebrated his selection.
On the plane ride from Rome to Berlin, Benedict said that the protests were a natural part of a free society. He also addressed the sexual abuse of children by priests. “I can understand that some people have been scandalized by the crimes that have been revealed in recent times,” he said, according to The Associated Press. Benedict said that there were both “good and bad fish in the Lord’s net.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Christian Wulff met Benedict’s Alitalia plane when it landed Thursday at Tegel Airport. Cannons fired a 21-gun salute to welcome the pope. Benedict, clad in white with a gold cross hanging on a chain, walked the red carpet on the tarmac.
Protesters gathered in Potsdamer Platz carrying signs reading “I was sexually abused by the Church,” and “Pope, go home.” The demonstrators included some of the lawmakers who had boycotted the pope’s speech to the Bundestag. Trade unions were there, too, along with 60 organizations representing a variety of groups, including gay men and lesbians, human-rights organizations and women’s movements.
Stefan Kelermann, 34, said he had come to demonstrate because of the pope’s policies toward family planning. “We have so many problems in the world, so many women having no choice about how many children they want and can feed, that I just wonder what kind of world the Catholic Church is living in,” said Mr. Kelermann, a shop manager.
The Mass on Thursday night was celebrated in Olympic Stadium, which was built to host the 1936 Olympic Games, widely viewed as a coming-out party for Hitler’s regime three years after he took power.
In his comments before lawmakers, Benedict acknowledged Germany’s history of aggression in the 20th century, saying Germans “have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the State became an instrument for destroying right.” Benedict, who came from an anti-Nazi family and was an unwilling member of the Hitler Youth, praised those who resisted the Nazis.
Catholics came from all over Germany and beyond to celebrate Mass with the pope. There were numerous Polish and Croatian flags hung inside the stadium. Christiane Longardt, a Catholic schoolteacher in Berlin, brought her two sons to hear the pope, whom she had seen once before on a trip to Rome.
“Somehow it is extremely moving,” Ms. Longardt said of being in the pope’s presence. As for the boycotting of his address by lawmakers, she said she found it “close-minded.”
“The Catholics that I know are quite open in discussing and even criticizing the church from the inside,” she said. “It doesn’t have to always come from outside.”
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