Pope Benedict XVI says his purpose is "to meet people and to speak about God"
Pope: "Responsibilty before God and before one another" shaped nation's freedom
Visit is marked by some protests and much apathy toward the church
Downturn in church membership coincides with 2010 child sex abuse scandal
On his first state visit to his homeland, Pope Benedict XVI met Thursday with Germany’s prime minister and president and spoke to legislators, but insisted that his purpose was not economic or political, but spiritual.
“Even though this journey is an official visit which will reinforce the good relations existing between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Holy See, I have not come here primarily to pursue particular political or economic goals,” he said during remarks at Bellevue Castle, the president’s official residence, “but rather to meet people and to speak about God.”
“The Federal Republic of Germany has become what it is today thanks to the power of freedom shaped by responsibility before God and before one another.”
The pope arrived Thursday morning at Berlin’s Tegel airport for a visit marked by heavy police presence and, in some places, protests. Many see the papal itinerary as an encroachment on church-state separation; others in the increasingly secular nation are critical of the church’s more conservative teachings.
Several organizations and politicians protested in Berlin. Robert Kastl, the organizer of a large demonstration, slammed the pope’s speech Thursday at the Reichstag, saying “no religious leader should speak in the German parliament.”
About 6,000 police officers are providing security for the visit.
First on the pontiff’s itinerary was a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Christian Wulff, in which they discussed the global financial situation, among other issues.
Later, in his speech at the Reichstag, Benedict asserted that European culture “arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome (…). This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe.”
“In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law. It is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.”
Enthusiasm in Germany abounded when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, but in the years since, disenchantment with the church has taken hold in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal and the perception that an increasingly conservative Catholic Church is unlikely to change its ways.
Stark numbers illustrate the difficulty the pope faces in mending fences in his homeland:
– According to Der Spiegel magazine, more than 181,000 Catholics have left the church since the child abuse scandal broke.
– Candidates for the priesthood have dropped 62% since 1990, according to the German Bishops Conference.
– In a poll for Stern magazine, 86% of Germans said they thought the papal visit was unimportant.
Also on Thursday, the pope was to meet with representatives of the Jewish community at the Reichstag and conduct Mass at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
On Friday he is scheduled to meet in Berlin with representatives of the Muslim community and the German Evangelical Church Council. He then will travel to Efurt for an ecumenical celebration in the church of the Augustinian Convent, and then to Etzelsbach for Marian Vespers at the Wallfahrtskapelle, a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The four-day state visit ends on Sunday.
CNN’s Diana Magnay contributed to this report.