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Theological Notebook: Keeping an eye on World Youth Day in Cologne (pt.2)

I also include two fabulously jaded article from the European press, from The Independent and a long and interesting treatment from Der Spiegel, which has the usual secularist equations of "religion" with conservatism and so forth (except, perhaps, for eastern religions which don't bother to challenge Western secular truth-claims). The mix between intelligence of writing and depth of treatment in Der Spiegel (would that American writers were given such space!) contrasted with the strange shallowness of its understanding of Christianity, or perhaps of any possibilities beyond secular, consumerist culture. Still, nothing I read matched the sheer, deep insight into the human condition than the girl at the end of the Independent article:
For many young Germans, the Pope remains the prime advocate of deeply unfashionable Catholic orthodoxy. "I go to church when I feel the need to," said a 20-year-old woman who will be attending the celebrations in Cologne. "I don't go there to get lectured at for an hour by somebody who is far too old."
Read 'em and weep:


Benedict to use Cologne visit to 'spark wave of new faith' worldwide

By Tony Paterson in Berlin
Published: 16 August 2005

Pope Benedict XVI's return to his German homeland later this week has been billed as a visit to a godless country in which more people trust the police and the nation's largest supermarket chain than the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

On Thursday, the Pope, 78, will arrive in the Rhineland city of Cologne to attend World Youth Day, a large and meticulously organised Catholic festival which is expected to attract more than half a million mainly young people from Germany and abroad.

The visit will be the German Pontiff's first foreign trip since he was elected in April. In an interview with Vatican Radio yesterday he said he hoped his appearance would "spark a wave of new faith among young people".

However, much of Germany's media poured cold water on the Pope's aspirations. Der Spiegel devoted its front cover to the visit and carried the headline: "Believers - desperately sought. The Pope's homecoming to an un-Christian country."

The magazine also published a poll in which Germans were asked to name whom they most trusted. The police topped the list, followed by Aldi, the country's largest cut-price supermarket chain, and, only then, the Pope. Among non-believing Germans, only 18 per cent said that they trusted the Pope.

Some of the difficulty stems from the reputation Benedict earned in Germany prior to his election. As Cardinal Joseph Ratz-inger, he was known as a severe enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy - at odds with modern Germans and their acceptance of birth control, homosexuality and sex outside marriage.

The other problem is a steady decline in the number of people attending mass. Hundreds of Catholic, and Protestant, churches have been turned into shops, pubs and cinemas in attempts to find worthwhile uses for the buildings.

The dilemma has worsened since reunification and the addition to the population of some 17 million Communist-educated and largely agnostic or atheist former East Germans.

"This country trains more orthopaedic shoe manufacturers and horse grooms than Catholic priests," said Der Spiegel. "In the east German city of Magdeburg, only 8 per cent of the new-born are baptised," it added.

Young Germans are likely to be in a minority at World Youth Day with most attendees from the Catholic heartlands of Spain, Italy and France.

"For most young people, a Nike sport shoe says more about a person than membership of the church," said Matthias Sellmann, a specialist in Catholic ethics. "The church is dealing with a generation that communicates with symbols and not through concepts, discourse and agendas."

The Pope's appearance in the Alps this summer, when he was seen wearing "Serengeti" sunglasses, a baseball cap and a Cartier watch, is unlikely to persuade World Youth Day participants of any new-found ability to communicate with the younger generation.

For many young Germans, the Pope remains the prime advocate of deeply unfashionable Catholic orthodoxy. "I go to church when I feel the need to," said a 20-year-old woman who will be attending the celebrations in Cologne. "I don't go there to get lectured at for an hour by somebody who is far too old."


When the German Pope Returns Home, He'll Find an Unchristian Land

By Mario Kaiser, Ansbert Kneip and Alexander Smoltczyk
Der Spiegel

When Pope Benedict XVI lands in Cologne for World Youth Day, he will be arriving in a country that has become foreign to him. The churches are empty, the politicians are non-believers and the people in the east are complete strangers to God. And now organizers of the biggest religious festival of the post-war era plan to turn it into a launching pad for a new religious awareness.

The Crested Salamander, the Great Yellow Bumblebee and the Natterjack Toad are also some of God's creations. And because these protected species are so fond of mating at the "Missionarsgrube" (Missionaries' Hollow) biotope on a meadow near Cologne, the Holy Father found himself forced to change his plans.

The closing mass of the Catholic World Youth Day was supposed to be held here at Missionarsgrube, but Germany's Society for the Protection the Environment filed a lawsuit on behalf of the salamanders, forcing the event's organizers to choose a new site for the holy mass -- a sealed-off old brown coal mine nearby.

God's smaller creatures count for more in Germany than the wishes of the Pope.

At least 800,000 young believers from all continents will converge on this former brown coal mine to celebrate World Youth Day (WYD) under the motto "We have come to worship Him." The organizers are under a great deal of pressure to pull off a successful event and prove to the pope, as well as themselves, that Germany is still capable of believing. They need images like those that were broadcast to the world in April, when the planet's young people gathered in and around St. Peter's Square in Rome when Pope John Paul II died. Cologne, they hope, will become a new Rome.

WYD's offices are located in Cologne's banking district, sandwiched between investment companies and the offices of financial advisors. Manfred Kollig, a member of the Catholic order Arsheimer Brothers, is the organization's "Division Manager for Liturgy." His job is to provide a framework for faith.

The complete schedule for World Youth Day 2005 -- a square meter-sized mosaic of small boxes, columns and tables -- hangs next to Father Manfred's desk. The minute-by-minute choreography of faith includes stage directions like "the Holy Father kneels" (on August 21), "the Holy Father sprinkles the bell with holy water" and "the congregation sings Laudate omnes gentes." At the WJD office, Father Manfred's schedule is simply referred to as "the script."

What's being staged near Cologne is no less than an historic encounter: the new pope meets the world's youth, or at least those young people who believe in God and the pope. The crowd that will converge on the site for six days -- sweating, singing, with knapsacks on their backs and trousers cut a tad too low -- will be the equivalent of a major city on a pilgrimage.

What should Cologne expect from the pope?

The man they'll be facing is the pope, a 78-year-old professor of dogma and fundamental theology, one who has spent the last 23 years in quiet conversation with centuries-old dogma, encyclicals and epistles.

When the pope was still a cardinal, he was deeply suspicious of this type of flag-waving mass gatherings, accusing German religious groups of trying too hard to make their Catholic festivals conform to the Zeitgeist. Trying to appeal to the world's youth was his predecessor's idea, not his. But the new pope will be coming to Cologne as a representative of the old pope, and the young faithful will enthusiastically greet his arrival. The Catholic laity has mobilized in recent months, unnoticed by the German population at large. They want to put on a show for the pope and the pilgrims that faith, while not exactly blossoming, does exist in Germany. Clubs and associations long believed extinct in a society obsessed with fun and fitness -- organizations with proud names like the St. George Pathfinders, Workers' Youth, Rural Youth Movement -- seem to be rising from the dead. For the last month, a 3.8-meter (about 12 feet) "World Youth Day Cross" has been carried through the country from Dresden. Everything has been prepared. Pilgrims will pay an entrance fee scaled to reflect their means, which includes health insurance, liability, full room and board and transportation.

There are 500,000 pilgrim backpacks prepared, each containing a rain cape, a water bottle, sun block, a public transportation pass, a map of the city and a book of hymns. They also contain a small, sealed bag containing a rosary, which actually looks like something else. A telephone hotline manned by multilingual pastors has been set up to deal with "religious psychoses and suicide attempts."

"Of course, we could have used modern technology to build a cathedral of light," says Father Manfred. "But we opted for candles instead. We wanted to reduce things to their essence -- Picasso, or late Matisse, not the fullness of Baroque."

German Catholicism is doing its utmost to demonstrate perfect organization -- as if there were some sort of relationship between logistics and piety. Or perhaps it's fear that is dictating this gargantuan effort, fear of what could happen when Benedict XVI lands at Cologne Airport around noontime on Thursday and sets foot in a country that has become foreign to him.

The German pope's first trip abroad is essentially a homecoming to a strange land, a country in which more people enter training programs to become orthopaedic shoemakers and equestrian managers than to join the Catholic clergy; a country in which just eight percent of the population in a city like Magdeburg, in the former East Germany, has been baptized.

Cheering crowds will greet the pope in Cologne, but this won't quite translate into a mad stampede into Germany's churches this fall. Two-thirds of all Germans believe in a higher being, but less than half say that faith is truly an important part of their lives.

Most Germans have developed their own private concept of faith. For them, the Big Bang has replaced the myth of creation, while catastrophic climate change is their new apocalypse. And depending on where they are in life, they enjoy small servings of ecstasy in the form of sex & drugs & rock 'n' roll or a concert subscription for two. At best, they pray on Wednesdays and Sundays, when the lottery numbers are announced. Internet chat forums are the new confessional, and everyone has his own homemade answer to the question of spirituality: a little Jesus, a big dose of career and, when in doubt, a deep gaze into their children's eyes. Indeed, many Germans are likely to view the World Youth Day with the indiffernce reserved for a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.

But what do Germans actually believe in? According to a TNS Infratest survey commissioned by SPIEGEL, Germany is not a godless country -- on the contrary, it has many gods. There is a need for spirituality, but not the Christian faith.

Oddly enough, while secularization has led to young people distancing themselves from God, it hasn't minimized the attractiveness of religion. Two-thirds of young people say that it's cool to believe in something. Religious symbols and emblems are hot items in youth culture -- a cross dangling from their necks or an image of Ché on their T-shirts. The trendsetters at Max magazine have just designated the rosary the "indispensable accessory around women's and men's necks" for this summer.

We live in a time of lay prophets. Read the bestseller lists, and you would think that Germany had suddenly turned into a theocracy. The pop star autobiographies that topped the list two years ago have been replaced by edification literature, almost as if Germans weren't going to the polls in September, but facing the apocalypse.

Cardinal Ratzinger's writings have been periodically sold out. A book of sermons by a television priest replaced a self-help diet book at the top of the non-fiction bestseller list, triggering a counter-reformation in bookstores, where a 46th edition of St. Peter's collected sayings grace the shelves. People, it seems, feel a need to talk about values -- but have no idea where to begin. But one thing is clear: believing in God no longer means identifying with the church. Only 32 percent of Germans surveyed said that they had great or very great confidence in the church. Pope Benedict XVI fares only slightly better than the church as a whole, with an approval rating of 36 percent. But he isn't especially popular among 18 to 29-year-olds, who are even less likely to express confidence in the pope than the general population.

And this is the pope who is supposed to energize the young people at World Youth Day in Cologne, to strengthen their faith and bring them closer to the church? At the Vatican, Germany is already seen as a lost cause. Its Catholic central committee is defiant, its churches are empty and its faithful are intimidated. And so the German Catholics feel like they owe something to the Vatican, which is why they want to prove their piety to the world -- with the perfect organization of this event.

The first preliminary events for World Youth Day are already over. Last week, dioceses throughout the country were hosting prayer circles and discussions and organizing Third World markets, but accommodations remained empty in many places, with far fewer young people traveling to Germany's small towns than expected. In some masses, prayers were said for congregations that hadn't received any young people. All this has led to fears that Cologne could also turn into a fiasco.

Faith, at least the kind of faith being taught in the Catholic and even the Protestant Church, is a minority position in Germany. The Infratest survey conducted for SPIEGEL revealed that even those who consider themselves religious are often considerably at odds with the church's positions. Just under two-thirds of Catholics -- and less than half of all Protestants -- believe in life after death, a central tenet of Christianity. Twenty-seven percent of the faithful say that God is not all-powerful, a concept that also deeply contradicts Christian teachings.

Rebelling the 1960s through church

Conservatives like Cardinal Meisner, the Archbishop of Cologne, are now pinning their hopes on a young generation who didn't get their ideas about the Gospel from their parents, who learned in school that the Gospel is one of many, and for whom Madonna was a blonde, crotch-grabbing pop star.

Germany's young people are "metaphysical exiles," says the elderly cardinal. Joachim Meisner sits in front of a festively colorful oil painting in the conference room of Radio Vatican in Rome. The painting depicts a group of popes crowding around Benedict XVI (the paint probably hasn't even dried yet). When the cardinal speaks, he sounds light-hearted and happy, and he punctuates his sentences with generous gestures. "The parents of our young people," he says, "are mostly aging Sixties radicals, and that's exactly what young people are rebelling against. That's why they're coming to Cologne."

Many young people feel no connection with the values of the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Emancipation and self-fulfillment" -- weren't those the ideas that led to their parents getting divorced? Cardinal Meisner is in good spirits. Ratzinger is pope, and his archbishopric, Cologne, is finally getting its chance to play Rome for a week -- after eight years of preparations. The cardinal predicts that when Benedict delivers his sermon from a boat on the Rhine River, he will be greeted "like the Redeemer on the Sea of Nazareth." This, he hopes, will bring new dynamism to Catholicism, and the faithful will no longer feel ashamed of their faith, will be able to walk through Germany -- "our poor fatherland, which desperately needs" the Christian Gospel -- with their "heads held high."

Meisner tells about how the German president took him aside on the evening of the conclave and asked him whether the election of a German pope would be seen as absolution for the two world wars.

In staging its World Youth Day, the Catholic Church plans to attract the attention of young people who grew up in an era in which values were not especially paramount. Instead, kids born between 1979 and 1990 grew up with computers, music videos and the Internet. Not surprisingly, their perception of reality is purely aesthetic. "For them," says Matthias Sellmann of the Catholic Social Ethics Society, "a Nike sneaker says more about a person than membership in the Catholic Church. The church is dealing with a generation that communicates through symbols, not through concepts, discourse or programs."

Symbolism was exactly what Pope John Paul II emphasized, however. He was able to communicate through symbols, even after his voice had become almost inaudible. In a globalized world, he occupied the empty space of a world conscience, of a global father.

He was Pope Wojtyla, the rigid opposite of a fun-loving society, hopelessly un-modern, uncomfortable, unwavering. But it didn't seem to bother some young people, be it the church's prohibition of contraception or stance on liberation theology. Their fascination with Karol Wojtyla isn't something that can be passed on like the papal throne. In contrast, Joseph Ratzinger's charisma has always been rooted in his shimmering intellect, the brilliant clarity of his fundamental approach to theology. Personal warmth has never been his strength.

His Wednesday addresses at St. Peter's Square in Rome are theological Über-lectures, sermons one doesn't expect to end in Amen, but in a list of footnotes. In these sermons, he philosophizes over concepts like "self-degradation," "relinquishment," and speaks of willingness to accept salvation and "morphé," while the pilgrims assembled on the square below sizzle in the midday sun. Mentions of his predecessor generate the heartiest applause among the faithful. Benedict's words appeal to the intellect without penetrating to the heart.

But the new pope has made visible strides in his first 100 days in office. The protector of Catholic dogma has turned into a genial, elderly gentleman, a man who is suddenly capable of being driven through Rome in a convertible, wearing Serengeti sunglasses. He smiles, waves and from time to time comes across as someone who has been relieved of a burden. "We used to speculate over whether he was even capable of raising his arms," says a German cardinal.

Benedict XVI will make the young people -- most of the Spanish, Italian, French -- who come to see him cheer. Perhaps he'll even manage to come up with his own language of gestures and symbols, without copying his predecessor. But what happens when the event is over?

On a poster prominently displayed throughout Cologne, pilgrims will be greeted by the faces of 126 long-term volunteers who work for WYD headquarters. It's an image of happy and smiling faces, and it looks decidedly Christian, even from a distance.

The face in square B 17 on the poster is Veronika Dickert, a native of Nuremberg. She's easily as attractive as the models whose faces normally grace ads for consumer products. Dickert is staying in a convent run by the Sisters of the Divine Savior. She says that some of the volunteers staying there are so strict about faith that they might as well be preparing for an ecclesiastical career: "They take everything so seriously. A young person can't live like that."

Sometimes she believes that she doesn't have enough faith. "That's my problem." The story of creation, she says, is lost on someone who majored in biology in school. Dickert is 20 years old. She likes tennis, Oscar Wilde and Dan Brown. She goes to church when she feels the need to go to church and not, as she says, "to spend an hour listening to someone lecture me, someone who's been old too long."

For Dickert, faith means questioning herself and not always accepting the easiest answer. She wants to be the one to decide what portion of dogma to accept, and how to go about doing it.

She has a boyfriend, of course. But he won't be attending World Youth Day. He's part of the German military contingent in Kabul.

These young people talk about sin, confession and saints with a matter-of-factness astonishing to non-Catholics. WYD's office, with its volunteers from 42 countries, is a precursor to a heavenly world in which no one would think of calling in a therapist when someone says: "I feel the Holy Spirit inside of me."

Véronique Rondeau, a Canadian, says, "I want to see how others experience faith." She says that the last major events, in Toronto and Paris, changed her life. "The pope said that we shouldn't be satisfied with mediocrity. Faith is deep, radical, rich."

John Paul II came up with the motto for World Youth Day: "We have come to worship Him." It's a program against the social democratization of faith, an agenda that has little interest in political translations of the Gospel. It's about kneeling, praying, talking about God -- in front of everyone, with all the trappings of a 2,000-year-old ritual.

"Metaphysical asylum-seekers?" It seems doubtful that Cardinal Meisner's hopes will be fulfilled. Perhaps the Archbishop of Cologne hasn't heard about the first comprehensive study of German Catholics, commissioned by Germany's bishops.

The youth-church divide

Sinus Sociovision, a market research company in Heidelberg, was hired to conduct a survey of what people don't say at confession. Even though the final report isn't due until September, interim results have already created an uproar within the church. According to the study, the image of churches in general is bad, worse than expected, even in the wake of the Easter euphoria in St. Peter's Square, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to bridge the chasm between youth and church culture.

"The World Youth Day event will conceal this divide for a few days," says Michael Ebertz, an expert on the sociology of religion in the southern German city of Freiburg, "but then normalcy will return, peaceful, polite, graveyard normalcy." Perhaps, he says, the children of sixties radicals don't know what to do with their spiritual sensuality, but he would be surprised if they were to suddenly come to the church in droves, seeking some sort of spiritual outlet.

Young people know how to distinguish between dogma and daily routine. For them, there is no mandatory connection between world view and the practical realities of life. Values are things to be tried on for size. And that's exactly why, to the chagrin of the cardinals, there is no turning back to the days when the words of a priest were treated with reverence. But they also balk at the idea of a return to the 1950s or even the 1960s, when everyone marched into church on Sundays and got themselves baptized, just because it was the thing to do.

Nowadays, churches must endure being scrutinized for their value, inspected like an outfit from Benetton or H&M. Those who can offer convincing standards are taken seriously. The dead pope was convincing, but the priests who scurry off after their sermons and whose every gesture suggests an apology for their very existence, are not.

The young people who believe in God have not discovered their faith because they read Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity." They don't read. They prefer visual stimuli. And what they respect is the expressive drama, the emotional power of religious ritual.

Sociologist Matthias Sellmann, who specializes in the study of religion, says, "A forgotten experience of faith could be renewed: the experience of a God who is not only true and good but, most important, beautiful. I'm firmly convinced that that would be something for modern man."

That could very well be the case, and Sellmann's idea of a modern faith isn't inconceivable, but what about the reality of faith in Germany, the country where "We are Pope!," as the tabloid Bild so spectacularly declared after Joseph Ratzinger's elevation to the papacy? What would the German pope see if he could actually break away from the spectacle in Cologne and make a pilgrimage to the rest of the country?

Communism made eastern Germany godless

In the East, the pope would find cities and villages filled with nonbelievers, places where only one in three people believes in God. These are places where churches are crumbling, ironically in a part of Germany where those same churches provided a sense of direction and support in the decades of dictatorship, in the months of revolt and in the years of transition.

In Templin, a town north of Berlin, God's house is being tended, however, by a man who can actually provide some information about the congregations of the godless. Horst Kasner has created a refuge under the thatched roof of the former chapel on the Alt Placht estate. The church was empty and had been falling apart for years. But it would gain a new lease on life when the Berlin Wall fell -- or at least that was what Pastor Kasner believed would happen. But he soon realized that it was easier to rebuild the church than to fill its pews. The de-Christianization of the socialist society had left behind a religious no-man's land. The church had 15 million members when the East German state was established. When it fell there were just 5.5 million left. Those who had left the church never returned and the number of those who remained kept shrinking. By late 2003, the Protestant and Catholic Churches in East Germany and Berlin had all of 3.7 million members.

"The representation of the church," says Kasner, "is greater than its substance."

Kasner moved to Templin from Hamburg in the fall of 1958. He was 32 years old, a young pastor who had studied in Heidelberg and had always known that he would return to his home in the East. "There were plenty of pastors in the West," says Kasner. He wanted a challenge. Kasner took his wife and his daughter Angela with him to Templin. Angela later married a man named Merkel, and today she is running for the German chancellorship.

Kasner's daughter now heads a party that calls itself Christian (the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU), the party of Catholics and capitalists from the Rhineland. Merkel rose to her position as a divorced Protestant with no children of her own. She is, in a manner of speaking, one of the few success stories of the church in the former East Germany.

It's an irony of history that the churches that became hotbeds of resistance in the socialist era were suddenly empty when East Germany ceased to exist. Kasner remembers the long lines of people waiting in front of Templin's town hall to cancel their church memberships. "They believed that all German citizens were automatically members of the church and had to pay church tax," says Kasner. "There were people standing in line to get out of the church, even though they weren't in the church to begin with."

In early 1990, when the end of East Germany was in sight, 90 teachers in Templin came to speak with Kasner. They asked him to teach them Jewish and Christian religious history, and even wanted him to issue a certificate to show that they had completed the course they wanted him to teach. He soon realized what the teachers were up to. They wanted to keep their jobs. "They thought that when the CDU took over, Germany would become a Christian country," says Kasner.

Pastor Kasner is now retired, and he devotes much of his time to the small chapel in the forest. Tourists come to the church to pray, couples to get married, parents to have their children baptized.

Many of the couples who come to Kasner to be married here don't belong to any church. Kasner sits down with them and asks why they want to get married in a church, but don't want to be part of the church. "At some point they say: 'There has to be something that can hold us together more tightly than the justice of the peace." They also want to sing hymns, even though they don't know any hymns, want to pray, even though they don't know any prayers. "And then," says Kasner, "comes the point when they say: 'And we'd also like a blessing.'" He smiles for the first time, almost as if he found this thought touching.

The issue of religious instruction has ignited culture wars in the eastern part of Germany. In the state of Brandenburg, for example, schoolchildren can choose between religion and a class called Life Design, Ethics and Religious Studies. In Berlin, the Senate took the concept one step further and decided to introduce ethics as a mandatory subject beginning in 2006. Religion, on the other hand, will become an elective. The decision prompted church officials, parents, schoolchildren and teachers to stage a protest in June in front of the city hall. The protesters, carrying placards that read "God is greater than the Senate," delivered to the Senate a 55,000-signature petition demanding that schoolchildren be allowed to choose freely between non-denominational ethics instruction and denominational religious instruction.

If they can't find comfort in the church, what can people turn to in Templin, a town with 25% unemployment? The pastor of Maria Magdalenen Church thinks about the question for a while, but then he says that he has no answer. He sees how people cling to their cars, their TVs, their vacations. "Some people," he says, "escape into addiction." On Sunday mornings, they sit in the "Schlemmer Eck," a pub on Templin's market square, drinking "Wilthener Goldkrone" brandy.

The church has very little following in eastern Germany. But even in the German parliament the pope's supporters are few and far between. He can only really count on two members from small constituencies to vote in line with Catholic dogma. Unlike in Italy and in Poland, no German political parties follow the Vatican line in their decision-making process.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder never mentions God and believes that religion is a private matter which is not important to politics and should never be brought into an election campaign. When his cabinet was sworn in, five of the ministers opted for the version which didn't include the Christian phrase "so help me God."

The German parliament has always generally agreed that religion should be kept at home and out of the workplace. The rather sober federal republic prefers to use special "commissions on ethics" rather than call on members to out their belief systems. That's why the debate over pre-implantation genetic diagnosis in 2002 was less heated than it could have been.

In today's world, the reality is that most religions are put into perspective by other religions, neutralized by the state and demystified by science. That is the legacy of the Enlightenment.

But that may be changing. Even in the German parliament, there are signs of a shift.

Change is in the air

The taboo on religion is being whittled away by the success of George W. Bush's last election campaign, which concentrated on values, and of course by Rome's religious upswing. Even Angela Merkel, the opposition candidate for German elections, joined the mass pilgrimage to St. Peter's Square after the death of John Paul II. She saw how hundreds of thousands of pope followers waited in line for 11, 12 or 13 hours to say goodbye to the pope. And it appears that she returned from Rome rather taken with Catholicism.

"She talked about the pope's burial at every party leadership meeting," says Philipp Missfelder, the leader of the Young Conservatives. "She was completely electrified by the experience." As the daughter of an East German vicar Merkel has always been in a position to interpret biblical references to her advantage. But Merkel's party colleagues don't harbor any illusions. Although they say that the CDU leader has Christian beliefs, one steering committee member admits that "she hasn't really got any serious connection to religion."

But now it does actually seem feasible to run an election campaign on values, rather than just on facts and figures. "There is change in the air," says Missfelder, himself a Catholic from North Rhine-Westphalia. He cites Christian salons in Berlin which are proving to be hugely popular as proof. And more and more members of parliament have started coming to the non-denominational "prayer breakfast."

At it, he insists Green Party members can often be seen standing next to conservatives who are next to Social Democrats. According to Green Party chair Katrin Göring-Eckardt, "Believing in God means knowing that HE is all powerful and that his ways are often unfathomable, but that at the same time I have personal responsibility for my own actions."

The Catholic "theo-cons" make up the "Cardinal Höffner Group" and celebrated Ratzinger's election as an "enormous chance for our country."

The members of this circle are trying to figure out if faith can used in politics. They don't believe that the separation of church and state should be lifted, but they do think it should be loosened slightly in certain political arenas. They don't, for instance, believe that German federal laws should be approved by the Vatican. But they do ask why personal belief systems can't play a role when it comes to sending troops into war, family policy, divorce or even homosexuality.

In future debates, the divisions between the parties may become less clear. "On the question of stem cell research, we have more in common with the Greens than with the liberal FDP party," says Missfelder.

He also says that the theo-cons still don't have a figurehead. "But people are coming together." Bush has shown how to win an election campaign on values and not just statistics. "You don't win people over by talking about pension reform," he says. "They want clear family-centered beliefs. People applaud when I openly stand by my Catholic faith at meetings."

But are believers any different to non-believers?

But what do the many "Germans" who don't have faith believe in? What value systems are close to their hearts and what ideals do they want to follow? And are these value systems any different from religious concepts? Or is it just not important any more who believes in God and who doesn't?

According to an Infratest poll commissioned by SPIEGEL, 72 percent of believers think it is "particularly important" to have children, compared to 46 percent of non-believers. Additionally, 83 percent of the religious believe that "having a good relationship" is very important. In the case of non-believers, this figure is nine percent lower. Key words such as "home" and "having a cozy environment" appear to be much more important to believers than non-believers: 71 percent of religious people view coziness as important, compared to 47 percent of non-religious people.

All kinds of words and phrases, from "responsibility to the next generation" and "honesty" to "environmental awareness," have a much higher resonance with people of faith than with those who have no faith. In other words, someone who believes in God really does have a different set of values compared to someone who doesn't believe in God.

Non-believers are on average more modern, put more stock in technological advancement and are more emancipated. More non-believers (81 percent) than believers (69 percent) think that a good relationship should take into account a woman's desire for a career. Non-believers also find self-fulfillment more important and agree more often with the statement "I want to enjoy my life." And for them marriage is no longer sacrosanct.

Those who don't believe in God are often more skeptical than Christians in other areas as well. Atheists generally have less faith in the state, in the police force and in the social support system -- all organizations that facilitate living together.

But things change when you ask atheists for phrases which in the widest sense of the word stand for the world of work and commerce. If they believe in anything, it is in themselves, the unions, the power of banks, as well as in the big discount supermarket Aldi. They don't need religious symbols and community, or at least they don't need a faith to achieve them. Today, the need for the sort of spiritual celebration religion often gives can be met without ever entering a church. People sing more ardently at a football game than at a religious mass, and anyone who buys a Volkswagen and picks it up themselves in the company's home town of Wolfsburg, is handed the key with all the significance of a biblical act of creation.

Faith in cash

According to the Berlin-based media expert Norbert Bolz, every society needs a "value system which gives answers, something traditionally known as religion." In today's society it may be capitalism and material consumption which provides people with answers and satisfaction -- even if only on this side of the grave.

Even at the beginning of the last century, the cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin refers to the manufacture of bank notes as creating holy images and writes about "capitalism as religion." And it certainly is true that various gods were depicted on early bank notes in an attempt to garner blessings and trust: Fortuna with a horn of plenty can be found on a 50 guild note of the South German Badische Bank from 1871, on a South African five pound note as well as on a 100,000 crown note from the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Faith in a currency can have almost religious characteristics. People expect the currency to heal all their woes, such as was the case in 1990 when the citizens of communist East Germany received the West German Deutschmark. And belief in a currency can also help create a national identity, as was the case with the German currency after the Second World War.

This was a time when many Germans believed in the power of brand names, such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche, Boss, Apple or Rolex, while others set their store by cultural Gods and literary popes. German intellectuals followed the example set by Woody Allen, when he said that culture was his Catholicism.

Christianity gets cultured and culture goes Christian

But recently, even in these circles, it has become more common to own up to a faith. Culture is flirting with the church. There is a new sort of curiosity in all things ancient. The Kammerspiele Theater in Munich attracted lots of visitors with its series of productions dealing with religion, titled "Blessed is he Who Believes."

The German TV comedian and chat-show host Harald Schmidt manages to bring a Ratzinger quote into almost every show. And not as a source of amusement. "I stand by the church," he says. "I have managed to get along with it well for 2,000 years."

The young writer Florian Illies, author of the cult novel Generation Golf, advises the church to try and stop sucking up to people under forty and to stick to its roots. "The Church has a unique selling point: the power of faith. But this power is only clear when it is expressed confidently and bravely -- and when it doesn't constantly hope for acceptance by today's materialistic society." Cardinal Meisner couldn't have put it better himself.

A key moment in the rapprochement between spirituality and society happened on January 19, 2004 when Jürgen Habermas, one of Germany's greatest current intellects, met with the leading dogma theologian, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Munich Catholic Academy. It was a peaceful, even harmonious, dialogue between the heirs of the Frankfurt School on the one side and the holy Inquisition on the other. Twenty years ago such a meeting would have been impossible. Ten years ago, it would have excited little interest.

Habermas praised the significance of religion as a support for "a modernization which is going off the rails" and as one of the main pillars holding up democracy. "The theory that a religious structure with transcendental references is the only thing which can help a contrite modernism out of the dead-end it currently finds itself, is becoming popular again," he explained. He said that it is in the interests of the constitutional state to deal compassionately with all the cultural sources which can be used to feed our citizens' awareness of norms and solidarity."

If people don't want to listen to Jutta Limbach, the former head of the German constitutional court, or the chancellor, or to Habermas, then the church should have a go. "When you know who exactly created a moral, it doesn't have the same unconditional, transcendental meaning," writes the philosopher Rüdiger Safranski. He goes on to say "there is therefore a yearning for moral transcendence because man himself doesn't trust himself to make his way on his own: What I have made up myself can't be as valuable." Hence the will of God.

During this thought-provoking evening with Habermas, Ratzinger did his bit by speaking of the need for "the divine light of reason, which must be seen as a sort of checking mechanism, through which religion must clean and tidy itself."

Pick 'n mix religions

Many of those without religion however don't believe in God, but rather in the power of Tibetan singing bowls, Bach flowers and Osho Active Meditations. Next to the dance school, on Ebertplatz in Cologne, not far from Father Manfred's World Youth Day office, is the holy chapel, "The Cross." A notice is pinned to the door, saying that "holy mass in the Roman Catholic rite of his holiness Pope Pius V" is on offer. This appears to be a filling a gap in the Cologne religious market.

The Buddhist Center has rented the basement of a house a few doors down. Someone carries in boxes from a local vineyard. A photo of two men is pinned to the wall. One of them wears reddish monk's robes. The other is more of the hang-gliding pensioner type. Beneath the picture, a sign reads: "The 17. Karmapa and Ole Nydahl look at a map of our centers in Europe."

The 17. Karmapa is one of the two reincarnations of the head of the Buddhist Kagyu order, Ole Nydahl is Denmark's successful guru and Angelika Eckhardt is "socially and ethically right on," as she puts it.

Angelika Eckhardt was once a practicing Catholic near Lake Constance. She did pilgrimages to Taize and studied economics. Now, at the age of 50, she is a massage therapist. When she hears that 1,000 confessionals are being built for World Youth Day, she is very happy about her decision to leave the church: "I can't stand the way you are supposed to make yourself feel bad, castigate yourself and ask for forgiveness..." For Eckhardt, Buddhism is a way of being spiritual without having to believe. "We have families and sex and go to the cinema. Everything is great. There are no sins. The question is always: What do you take out of it yourself?"

In the center there are no burning incense sticks, statues, sacrificial bowls or prayer bells. In fact, it looks like a market researcher's dream: good-looking people, mid- to late-thirties. A law student, Kurt, an Austrian woman in tight turquoise-colored jeans. No confessional.

Klaus, a 47-year-old care assistant for the elderly, says things about how you should "stop letting others make decisions for you" and that he finds it all very satisfying. He says that his mother is Protestant and his father a humanist and retired court judge. "There is no external truth, no God. There are gods, but what good does that do me? The truth lies in me."

This is how religion should be: sensual and individual. Some quarter of a million people in Germany define themselves as Buddhist. On top of that there are 5,000 followers of Osho, otherwise known as Bhagwan, 5,000 Sikhs as well as countless smaller groups such as the "twelve tribes." In Germany, 3.2 million people are Muslim, 950,000 identify themselves as Hindu and 190,000 are Jewish.

But there is no religion which is as attractive to converts as Buddhism. There are thought to be 300 various branches and schools. In Berlin apprenticeships have just begun being taught at some schools. The "Diamond Way of Buddhism" is more than anything else a way of life.

Achieve eternal happiness ... and all without rules

The demand for it is unlimited. There are some 120 centers. The light version of the religion, which is originally a highly complex faith, even appeals to atheists. Everyone makes their own way on the Buddha's journey to nirvana, the place of eternal happiness. For new converts Buddhism is easy to learn, works well as a consolation, can be used in many different ways and is discrete in its application. There are no world leaders, no pope. It fascinates people, especially those who believe in one thing only: themselves.

Buddhism is a belief replacement for successful people. A religion which helps you experience yourself. It's more of an attitude than a belief system and seems to have absolutely no rules. There is even something quite extravagant about it.

Even traditional churches have been influenced in part by this spirituality. Maybe in the hope that even the wrong track can eventually lead back to the faith.

The programs of the some churches already sound like Californian New Age hand-outs. For example "Patanjali Yoga Sutra" is on offer in the Catholic educational center in Ludwigsburg. Sacred dancing and "deep stomach breathing" ("please bring socks"), "Fast - vomit - rediscover yourself" and for Lent "healing days with dance and meditation" and "introductory course in the Feldenkreis Method," as well as "eight brocade exercises" with Professor Jiao Guorui.

Thirty-eight percent of Germans now say that when a person dies, he is not judged by his maker, but comes back to live another life on earth -- they believe in the Buddhist idea of reincarnation.

The most Catholic place in Germany

Fortunately there is still one small spot in Germany which is unashamedly religious: the small Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn. This is where Joseph Ratzinger was born and baptized 78 years ago. He actually only lived here for two years, but that doesn't seem to matter. Marktl is now famous. The mayor calls the town's change of fortunes a "natural act of God."

Until recently the only thing special about this place was that it stood at the intersection between two Bavarian hiking trails. Today it is full of religious tourists. Cyclists no longer bypass the village and on weekends the town center is closed off to traffic and a provisional bus parking lot has been set up. People come to see the church where Ratzinger was baptized -- even though it was completely rebuilt in the sixties and only one wing is left over from Ratzinger's time. They also come to see the house in which he was born. Preferably from inside, which is why the owner has taken down the bell and is now selling the building.

It was the shopkeepers who first spotted what was happening: One baker sells "original Vatican bread" and another competes with "papal hats," which are engraved, sugared bread rolls. In the café over the road, for 2.20 euros you can get Benedict Tarts, made of mascarpone cream with a shot of amaretto. "B. XVI." is written in cocoa powder on every piece. Or there is "Ratzinger grilled sausage with blossom petals," pilgrim's sausage, Ratzinger coffee, Ratzinger T-shirts and in the village pub, original papal beer.

A sponsored sign with the logo of a local bank in the corner hangs outside the church with the words "a warm welcome to the church where his holiness Father Benedict XVI was baptized." "It would have cost us €1,000 euros," says Father Josef Kaiser. "The parish just doesn't have that much money."

But should religion be so commercialized? Father Josef Kaiser has heard this criticism before. "You have to be commercial," he says. "We would have been mad not to have taken advantage of it."

The whole Ratzinger craze has at least had some good side effects. "There has never been so much praying in Marktl as there is now," says Kaiser. He could hold three masses a day and they would all be full -- but with strangers. The priest has not really noticed that villagers have become more Catholic in the last few weeks.

Losing your religion

Kaiser is 55 years old and has lived in Marktl for two years. In addition to the village church, he also looks after a neighboring parish which doesn't have a priest. Recently, four new priests were ordained in Passau. But at the same time, there were ten priests who either died or left. Even here in the diocese of Passau, one of Germany's most Catholic areas, there aren't enough priests. Soon Kaiser will have to look after a third parish as well.

In this respect, Marktl is not doing any better than the rest of Germany. In 1992 there were still 19,266 Catholic priests. In 2004, this number had shrunk to 326. Becoming a priest is no longer a particularly attractive option. In the whole of Germany, 210 trainee priests were accepted into seminary last year.

It's a bit like the religion in Marktl am Inn. The pope attracts people, but no-one wants to be a priest anymore. Of the 2,700 inhabitants of the town, 2,200 are Catholic. About a quarter of them attend mass on Sunday. At least that is more than the seven percent of Christians who go to church in the large cities. But Father Kaiser has noticed how belief has even dwindled here.

Every Saturday before the evening mass, confession is heard in Marktl. "But no ones comes anymore," complains Kaiser. He is happy when he hears confession four times a year. For example, before a wedding.

"This is the beginning of a new stage of life," is what he tells the couple in discussions before the wedding. "Would you not perhaps want to confess?" The way in which people believe has changed, even in conservative Bavaria. "The old simple piousness doesn't exist anymore," says the priest. "People say, no, not today. And they don't have a bad conscience anymore."

In Germany, the national traditional church has changed to an optional church. Anyone who still belongs has made an active decision to do so. The same goes for anyone who doesn't.

Every 75 seconds, a Christian leaves the church. In 2003, 180,000 Protestants left the church. Only 60,000 joined.

The Catholic Church, is hardly in better shape: in March the German bishops' conference published a sobering set of figures under the title "the Catholic Church in Germany -- Statistical Data 2003." According to the report, the number of Catholics has decreased every year since 1974. The latest figures for 2003 show that around 65,000 more Catholics were buried as were baptized. Far more people leave the church than enter it.

This meant in 2003 there was a "decision to join negative," as they put it in the report, of 117,000. Fewer Catholics were baptized in 2003 than at any time since 1960. There were exactly 205,904 Catholic baptisms in 2003. That's 3.5 percent lower than the previous years and 31 percent lower than in 1990. In other words, Catholics are dying out.

Saved by youth

So will World Youth Day be a wake-up call, and mark the beginning of a revival of the Catholic Church? At least a better world is being built in Cologne, on top of the former brown coal pits of Kerpen-Türnich. A large field of faith, with the power station chimneys and Real delivery depot only faintly visibly on the horizon. Our Lady's field is an open-air cathedral with, as specified by the builders, "dimmable lighting on the entire pilgrimage area."

The Church's thousand-year-old treasure trove of symbols and pictures is being delved into. Flowers in the shape of stars are on every (wheelchair-accessible) curve on the papal hill, the area is lit by candles (all checked for safety by fire officers) and a transparent roof (resistant to wind speed six) stretches out, looking a bit like a spaceship, under the sky from which HE speaks.

Benedict XVI will hold a Saturday evening vigil here as well as hosting the next morning's final mass. By then, he will have already visited the synagogue in Cologne and taken part in a conference with the Muslim community, Chancellor Schröder and opposition leader Merkel. He will not have kissed the concrete floor of the Cologne airport.

Benedict XVI will look down from the papal hill, with the large depot of Real in his sights, and presumably preach against consumerism, "relativism" and every worldly point of view which throws a doubt on truth.

And below, there will probably be some 800,000 young people, cheering and impressed by the pope, by the Lord and by themselves.

Then he'll be off. Back to Rome. The last World Youth Day visitor will hardly have left the grounds before the signs in Cologne will be swapped. The election campaign, dealing with pension reform, health insurance reform and tax rebates will then kick off. The name Benedict XVI is unlikely to crop up much.

The Germans have irrevocably moved into a post-religious world. They would like to believe. They suspect that it might help and therefore they respect anyone who is able to believe. But they themselves, for the most part, can't do it anymore. They read Peter Hahne, because Ratzinger is too hard for them. They still say "the pope is right, that's how it should be." But if a politician starts seriously talking about God, they roll their eyes and change the channel.

The pilgrimage paths on Our Lady's field will be deconstructed in an environmentally sound fashion. The components are biodegradable. Only the 3,000 chalices made by ThyssenKrupp pose a slight problem. They have been built to last an eternity and cannot be recycled. And very soon there will no use for them in this country. Only the papal hill will remain. It will be a reminder of an unreal event. Something which is almost impossible to believe.
Tags: benedict xvi, cultural, media, theological notebook

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