Surge of pride meets diminishing relevance

Germany: Church attendance dwindles, fewer men become priests.

Pope's Homeland

April 21, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TRAUNSTEIN, Germany - Here in the foothills of the Bavarian alps, Pope Benedict XVI was born, began to train for the priesthood, deserted the Nazi army and began his university teaching career. This is where, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he returned every year to walk, rest and reflect.

The new pope is known here, as he is in the Vatican, as a person for whom the truth is not a matter of debate or degrees, but is as firm and unchangeable as the jagged peaks that stand like ramparts along the southern horizon.

But if the Vatican believes that Pope Benedict's granite-hard faith will cure what ails Catholicism in Europe, where church attendance is dwindling, seminaries are half-empty and many parishes are having trouble recruiting priests, the evidence here is discouraging.

At a special Mass last night in St. Oswald's Cathedral, where the pope was confirmed as a young man, only about 150 parishioners showed up to celebrate his ascension to the leadership of the 1.1 billion-member Catholic faith.

At a Catholic retirement home here, most residents paid little attention to the Vatican election drama yesterday, said Josef F. Schmidt, 81, a former computer engineer who long ago attended classes with the future pope at St. Michael's Catholic boarding school here. "There was complete disinterest," he said.

There was clapping and cheering yesterday at St. Michael's, where the future pope and his brother Georg Ratzinger, a retired priest and choirmaster, first studied religion in the 1930s. Faculty members toasted the news with sips of champagne.

But only two, perhaps three, of the 56 students enrolled at St. Michael's plan to follow in the footsteps of the school's most famous alumnus and enter the priesthood.

Subdued pride

German newspapers reflected subdued pride mixed with quiet unease about the ascension of the first German pope since the 11th century. Munich's Suddeutsche Zeitung said in its headline, "Joy and Criticism Among Catholics."

Pope Benedict's supporters argue that his previously uncompromising views will inspire faltering Catholics, rather than drive them further away. "He says, `If I am not convinced of my truth, there cannot be a dialogue, because if the center is not firm, there can be no opening of the borders,'" said the Rev. Thomas Fauenlob, director of St. Michael's seminary preparatory program.

"I should like to study in this school, but I will not continue as a priest," said Hubert Edfelder, a 14-year-old eighth-grader enrolled at St. Michael's, who then explained why he would choose a different profession. "Probably because faith is no longer strongly taught to young people anymore, and there are so many professions where they have more liberties."

Edfelder led a tour of the seminary's dormitory, where there was no rock music playing, no trash or graffiti in the hallways, no socks on the bedroom floors.

Cardinal Ratzinger established a foundation in 1982 to support the school, whose mission is to maintain the rigorous training the future pope had as a boy. "The idea of the school," said Michael Winichner, 28, a prefect in the pre-seminary program, "is traditionalist and conservative."

In Ratzinger's time, unruly students risked being slapped by teachers. Not anymore.

"But His Holiness was always a very obedient student," Winichner said. "He always got straight A-pluses in everything, except sports." Ratzinger has written of the sports program at St. Michael's as "torture."

St. Michael's seminary-preparation program has shrunk since Ratzinger's days, when about 100 boys were enrolled. Only in the past five or six years, Winichner said, has the number begun rising again.

Regular visits

Ratzinger and his brother returned to St. Michael's every January, staying in two second-floor apartments overlooking the town. The Cardinal liked to walk the halls, Frauenlob said, "and then tell me afterwards where something had changed. He's very observant. Even if a picture has been re-hung, he notices it."

Ratzinger was born in the nearby hamlet of Marktl am Inn in 1927. Two years later, the family moved to another village near Traunstein. In 1941, at age 14, the pious and somewhat withdrawn student of Greek and Latin was forced by law to join the Hitler Youth.

Later, he was drafted into the anti-aircraft corps, responsible for guarding an airplane plant near Munich. Released, he returned here, only to be drafted into a labor division serving in Hitler's Austrian Legion - which he later described as having "fanatical ideologues who tyrannized us without respite."

Traunstein remains a regional shopping hub of about 18,600 people, working for government agencies, a breadcrumb factory or the four local breweries. Its medieval center is a maze of cobblestone streets lined with pastel-colored homes with steeply pitched roofs covered in red shingles.

Aging congregation

At the baroque St. Oswald's Cathedral, where Ratzinger was confirmed, the priests displayed a picture of Pope Benedict XVI clipped from a newspaper and mounted on red poster board.

Most of the worshipers at the Mass were in middle-age or elderly and kept their coats on throughout the service.

In his sermon, the Rev. Sebastian Heindel spoke of Traunstein's joy at Cardinal Ratzinger's election. "We have a pope," he said in Latin, echoing the announcement made in Vatican Square. "We can say, he was one of us, who lived with us."

"He is a human being with his strong sides and his weaknesses," he said when Mass was over, "and let's hope that he can show his strong side in his papacy."

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