Pope speaks to German believers, calls for common front with Orthodox Christians

Sunday, September 25, 2011
Pope Benedict XVI blesses youths Saturday during a vigil prayer at the fairground in Freiburg, southern Germany. The pontiff is on a four-day official visit to his homeland. (Andrew Medichini ~ Associated Press)

FREIBURG, Germany -- Pope Benedict XVI called Saturday for a common front with Orthodox Christians to defend traditional church values, warning of threats posed by abortion and gay marriage.

Facing discontent within his German flock, the pope said religion must not be banished from public life and that Christian churches "are walking side by side" in the battle.

"They speak up jointly for the protection of human life from conception to natural death," he told a meeting of Orthodox Christians on the third day of a visit to his native Germany.

"Knowing, too, the value of family and marriage, we as Christians attach great importance to defending the integrity and the uniqueness of marriage between one man and one woman from any kind of misinterpretation," he said. "Here the common engagement of Christians, including many Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians, makes a valuable contribution to building up a society equipped for the future."

The Vatican was undeterred by an incident earlier in the day in the eastern city of Erfurt on the edge of the security zone in which a man fired an air gun at a security guard about an hour before a papal Mass.

Benedict's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said there was "no worry" in the papal entourage over the incident, and the pontiff was not informed about it before the Mass. Police said the alleged shooter had been arrested and that there were no injuries.

Police later identified the suspect as a 30-year-old Erfurt man who lived in Berlin. They said an air rifle and air pistol were found in his top-floor apartment, and that he was being held on suspicion of attempting to cause serious bodily harm.

After the Mass, the pope flew to Freiburg, a city with a large Catholic population in southern Germany.

Fewer have faith

In his homily in Erfurt, before a crowd of 30,000 people, the pope acknowledged that the collapse of communism in the former East Germany more than 20 years ago has allowed the church to function freely, but he questioned whether that change has brought any increase in faith.

"Are not the deep roots of faith and Christian life to be sought in something very different from social freedom?" the pope said. "It was actually amid the hardships of pressure from without that many committed Catholics remained faithful to Christ and to the church."

Benedict's four-day state visit comes as Germany's church has been losing tens of thousands of followers amid revelations that hundreds of children and young people were abused by clergy and church employees.

On Friday night, he took a step to placate some of the anger by meeting for half an hour with two women and three men from parishes across Germany who were among the abused.

The Vatican said the pope expressed "deep compassion and regret" at the suffering of those who were abused and assured them the church is seeking "effective measures to protect children."

Survivors groups were quick to denounce the pope's meeting with German victims as an empty gesture. They maintain the church has not done enough to prosecute offending priests and prevent future cases of abuse.

Germany's Bishops Conference has set up a telephone hotline to counsel victims and help them to take legal steps against offending priests when possible.

Catholic leaders had warned ahead of Benedict's visit that there was no quick solution, but they hoped the pontiff could help heal wounds left by the scandal.

"I think it's certainly an important issue, but it's not the most important thing about a pope's visit," Monika Graner, a pilgrim from Wuerzburg, said of the sex abuse scandal.

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