Pope Benedict says East German Catholics suffered “acid rain” under communism
Pope Benedict has praised Catholics in eastern Germany who held on to their Christian beliefs despite the “acid rain” that corroded their faith under the Nazis and communism. The pope said mass on Saturday for some 30,000 people in the medieval main square of this city in former communist East Germany, where only about seven percent of the people are Catholic.
“You have had to endure first a brown and then a red dictatorship, which acted on the Christian faith like acid rain,” he told the crowd from the altar, set against a hill dominated by Erfurt’s cathedral and another Catholic church. The region was ruled by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945, like all of Germany, and then by the East German communists until after the Berlin Wall opened in 1989.
About two hours before the mass a man fired an air gun at security staff at a checkpoint in Erfurt, police said. Detained on the spot, the unidentified man told police he was protesting at the strict security measures. The pope’s third trip to his homeland since his election in 2005 has attracted small crowds and some protests against the church’s positions on homosexual marriage and birth control, and a sexual abuse scandal.
The 84-year-old praised those who remained faithful despite the pressures of the Nazi and communist regimes but appeared disappointed there had been no resurgence in faith since German reunification in 1990.
Benedict held a surprise meeting on Friday evening in Erfurt with victims of sexual abuse by priests. Church officials said on Saturday there were three men and two women present, chosen from many victims around Germany who had asked to meet the pope. “There was no dispute, that wasn’t the atmosphere of the conversations, but to really listen, and it was obvious that the Holy Father felt deep regret, he expressed that clearly,” said Bishop Stephan Ackermann. About 700 Germans have filed for compensation for abuse by priests and Church personnel. A record 181,000 Germans left the Church last year, many in protest at the abuse scandal.
A Vatican statement after his meeting with victims at the Erfurt seminary said the pope had been “moved and deeply shaken” and had assured victims the Church was “committed to the promotion of effective measures to protect children”. Victims’ associations have said the Vatican has not done enough to bring the perpetrators of abuse to justice. German victims joined 8,000 protesters on a march through Berlin, where the Pope began his visit.
On Friday, Benedict called for unity between Catholics and Protestants at the monastery where 16th century reformer Martin Luther lived before he posted his 95 theses criticising the Catholic Church that led to the Reformation. Residents attending the mass said they also hoped for closer ecumenical ties in Germany where Christians are split equally between Catholics and Protestants. Although he called for unity at his meeting with Protestant leaders, Benedict resisted their calls for practical steps such as letting Protestants receive Catholic communion.
“I hope the two faiths come closer together. There have been some small steps, but I think it’s a long way off,” said policeman Michael Weiss, 43. “The two churches must become more alike. The Catholic Church does reform, albeit slowly,” said Gabriele Sturm, 57, a Protestant doctor married to a Catholic.
Interviewed on German radio, German Church spokesman Matthias Kopp rejected criticism that the Church was paying about 30 million euros ($40 million) for the pope’s visit but only two million euros in compensation to about 700 victims. The 30 million euros were needed to pay for open-air masses attended by about 260,000 Catholics, he said.
Asked about the protests, Kopp said: “The demonstrations were rather small events. In Berlin they expected 20,000 and only about 8,000-9,000 turned up. There were some 200 in Erfurt. The pope knows about this and he’s taking it pretty calmly.”
by Philip Pullella and Brian Rohan in Erfurt
For an interactive timeline on recent papal visits, click here.