Pope gives freewheeling Munich excuse to celebrate

April 22, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MUNICH, Germany - Here where Joseph Ratzinger once presided as archbishop and later cardinal, people say his elevation to Pope Benedict XVI is a cause for celebration.

But then, the people of Munich think that pretty much everything is a cause for celebration.

They seem to like nothing better than festivals and holidays. Many of these events revolve around a single theme. There are, for example, the Festival of Strong Beer, the May Bock Beer Festival and, of course, the sausage-and-brew extravaganza, Oktoberfest.

Rural Bavaria - the birthplace of the new pope ---- is often portrayed as pious and religiously conservative. But Munich, the region's capital and Germany's third-largest city, is undeniably freewheeling, rakish and culturally tolerant. Small wonder that since the start of the decade, three out of four Germans have told pollsters they would prefer to live in Munich.

Munich's attitude toward Pope Benedict XVI, it seems, is the same as its attitude toward everyone else. "Live and let live is really the typical attitude here," said Stefan Hauf, a spokesman for the Lord Mayor of the city. "There is a certain liberal view. This was never a town of farmers, but always of traders, open to all the world."

University students sunbathe nude in Englischer Garten; autoworkers and high-tech entrepreneurs get groggy together in the city's most famous beer gardens. Munich hosts ultra-hip festivals of modern art, music and jazz, as well as the Christopher Street parade, an R-rated event that draws gays from all over Europe.

The city's 1.3 million residents seem less focused on the politics of the Vatican than on the cross-town rivalry between the soccer clubs Bayern Munich and TSV-1860. Or they're grappling with the cost of housing, and raising children in one of the most expensive cities in Germany.

Hordes of newcomers have moved here over the past five years, attracted by the mountains, the relatively warm climate and a booming economy. Munich is home to prospering manufacturers, including BMW, as well as computer industry startups.

The unemployment rate here is just 7 percent, compared with more than 10 percent in the rest of Germany.

Still, the new pope has created a buzz.

At the Hugendubel Bookstore on Marienplatz, across from the New City Hall, there is a three-foot stack of The DaVinci Code, a thriller in which the hero is chased by a sinister group of conservative Catholics. It sits a few steps away from a rack filled with copies of Values in the Time of Change, a 160-page meditation by former Cardinal Ratzinger.

Both books have become best sellers, though the religious publishing house distributing the pope's book can't print it fast enough to meet demand, said Patrick Scholz, one of the store's managers.

Pope Benedict XVI has instantly become the world's third-most famous Bavarian, at least by Hauf's reckoning, after retired soccer star Franz Beckenbauer, and "Crazy" Ludwig II, Bavaria's madcap 19th-century king who built fairy tale castles.

The city has invited the new pontiff to visit, perhaps as part of a trip he plans to Cologne in August to a massive gathering of Catholic youth.

German Protestants are caught up in the excitement.

"He is a very wise, very intellectual man," said Angela C. Kunder, a Lutheran who is director of a music school. "The other pope was more charismatic and sensual. I think he was closer to people. But the new pope can achieve that as well."

In 2003, an ecumenical meeting in Berlin between German Protestants and Catholics was marred by the Vatican's refusal to allow Catholic priests to offer Holy Communion to Protestants, a decision blamed on then-Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Since Protestants didn't believe that the bread and wine in the ceremony was physically transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ, the Vatican said, priests who gave them communion would be committing a sin.

That action disappointed Kunder. But she said that the new pope's willingness to tell people what they don't want to hear is a strength, not a weakness. "He should listen to his inner voice," she said. "The main thing is to confess yourself to Jesus, and let that guide you. It doesn't matter if you are Catholic or Lutheran."

But most of the interest in the new pontiff appears to reflect curiosity and pride rather than enthusiasm. When a German newspaper asked a Bavarian shopkeeper whether he would stock Pope Benedict XVI souvenirs, he snapped: "Who is supposed to buy those?"

According to a poll conducted for the regional Bavarian newspaper Suddentsche Zeitung, 76 percent of the population is pleased by having the first German pope in nearly five centuries. But Pope Benedict himself was viewed positively by only 63 percent of the people surveyed, the paper reported yesterday.

Nearly 90 percent of those polled said they favored changes the new pope staunchly opposes, including equal rights for women in the church and an end to the requirement of priestly celibacy.

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