There is a book that was released a few years ago entitled “1000 Places to visit before you die”, providing the reader with the top 1000 places that people should see in their lifetimes; among them include the Galapagos, Great Barrier Reef, the Alps, and of course cities like New York, Cairo, Rome and the Vatican.
Perhaps they should release a book on 1000 things you must do before you die sometime in their lifetime.
Each of us has a “To Do” List containing at least 200 things that we should do in our lifetime, whether it is bungee jumping, meeting an important statesman or even accomplishing feats not known to man. Nine out of ten of us- myself included- have the encounter with the Pope on our list.
Consider that mission completed.
Friday the 23rd of September, which naturally coincided with the first day of autumn, was the day Pope Benedikt XVI came to Thuringia, and everyone in the city of Erfurt, as well as Leinefelde and Etzelbach were busying themselves for his arrival, which included special deals on Benedikt merchandise, such as Benedictus beer, traditional Thuringian specialties, and even chocolate products bearing the Pope’s name. Sections of the autobahn A-38 were blocked off to provide buses with parking opportunities for the vesper service in Etzelbach. Even sections of Erfurt’s beloved city center, including Domplatz (where the cathedral is located) was barricaded to prepare for mass services the following morning. This included a corridor between the Airport and Augustiner Kloster, located north of Krämerbrücke, where policemen and women from all over the country were lining up to escort the Pope and his constituents to their destination.
Friday was supposed to be the day to take care of some university-related errands in Erfurt, but given the high security and restrictions in traffic because of sections being blocked off, it had to be put off to another time. But it did provide me with an opportunity to see and get some pics of the Pope himself, as he was scheduled to meet the cardinals and other important church officials at the Augustiner Kloster. It would be a one of a kind event, something to share with the rest of the family.
It was 10:30 in the morning at Erfurt Central Railway Station, people were going about their business, selling their goods and getting to their destination by train. All was normal with the exception of policemen patrolling the platform to ensure that there was no trouble. While no one really showed it, there was a chill of excitement in the air. The Pope was coming and everyone wanted to make sure that his stay was a memorable one. After all, the region he was visiting was predominately Lutheran even though well over half of the population was either agnostic or atheist. It was his plan to embrace the population in hopes that peace and prosperity dominated politics and products.
Arriving at Domplatz at 10:45, it was clear that everybody was gearing up for the Pope’s arrival. Already the pedestrian zone in front of the cathedral was fenced off in preparation for the holy mass service, scheduled for the next day at 9:00. Bleachers were already lined up and the speakers were being established so that all of Erfurt could listen to him that morning. The Pope was scheduled to land at the airport and be escorted by caravan to Augustiner Kloster, but given his seal tight schedule and the fact he was flying from Berlin, he was at least a half hour behind schedule when he arrived at the airport. But still, the city had to keep to the schedule and cored off the route at 11:00am, forcing street cars and traffic to make a wide detour around the city center. When an important figure, like the Pope, shows up in a city like Erfurt, it is not a good idea to go either by car or by public transport. If anything, the bike is the most viable option, given the city’s infrastructural landscape. But it was not a problem, as I had my bike with me, an eastern German brand Diamant black city bike going by the name of Galloping Gertie, and it was not a problem getting around, let alone parking it near the cathedral to attend the event. By the time the corridor was sealed off, I was on the north end, and like many others- journalists, photographers and innocent bystanders alike, it was more of a waiting game until the Pope’s caravan showed up.
11:45am- the Pope arrives. Five cars and a van, escorted by police motor cycles and Germany’s version of the Secret Service. It was obvious when the Pope was going to pass through when two different sets of squad vehicles passed through- the first were motorcycles to provide a signal to the police lining up that the route was no longer to be crossed. Five minutes later, three cars pass to provide a signal that the Pope and his caravan was coming. Then came the caravan- a dozen police motorcycles followed by five black cars and a van- the Pope was in the fourth car and was waving at the crowd. Cameras were firing off photos like the paparazzi following a celebrity. It was no wonder why the Pope’s car was driving as fast as possible. While it was possible to see him waving, it was next to impossible to get a clear shot at him. The fortunate part of the whole deal was that I was able to photograph his car and film his motorcade passing by at the same time- a feat that can only be accomplished by an expert photographer/ journalist (barring any bragging rights with this statement). After passing through down the sealed off corridor, I made my way back to the bike, which was parked on the other side of the corridor and it took over 45 minutes to get to as lines of police officers ensured that no one crossed until the Pope left the city center, which would not be before 2:00pm. The walk was worth it as I had a chance to meet those who wanted to see the Pope but were barricaded so far away that it was impossible to do. Although I did eventually get to my bike, which was parked on the southeast end of the fenced off Domplatz, I found it nearly impossible to maneuver around the city center given the high security and masses of people roaming around the streets. But it did provide me with an opportunity to do two things:
- Check out the small booths that sprouted up in the city center. With the Pope’s visit came many opportunities to sell knickknacks bearing the seal of the Pope on there- whether they were beer mugs (which I have more than enough in my china hutch), T-shirts with a sheep on there with the Pope’s name in vein (I have plenty of those in my stock, including a couple I picked up during my USA visit) to Benedictus Beer with the Pope’s name on it (I’ll prefer my Flensburger beer, thank you.) And while the Pope had already mentioned to a crowd in Berlin a night earlier that modernization and consumption was poisonous to today’s society, it seems that many people did not listen to him and decided to make that easy dollar in an attempt to show that they appreciate his visit. This definitely spoils the meaning of his visit, which is to listen to him and take something valuable from his sermon with him. I sometimes wonder if everyone will listen and not just the few, who like me do not fancy things that clutter up our space in our lives…. Eventually I did take a souvenir home with me- a box of Canadian chocolates (of course, with the Pope’s seal on it), courtesy of a candy-export company in western Thuringia. Unlike the American counterpart, this sortiment tasted creamier and more like fudge, which was mouth-watering for someone with a sweet tooth. For me, it is more appropriate to try something new than to take something back to show to everyone that he/she was there.
- Find another pocket for some photo opportunities for the Pope’s trip back to the airport for his trip to Etzelbach for his evening vesper. While the police had formed a line to provide a corridor for his trip to and from Augustiner, it did not necessarily mean that it was impossible to get some closer shots of him. People living in apartments above the corridor were probably the biggest winners as far as seeing him live is concerned, while those who were on those narrow side streets right up to the barricade came in a close second. I was one of those who benefitted from the latter as I found another spot which was closer than the one I had to put up with on the north end of Domplatz. Despite the fact that he was behind schedule, we were treated with an even longer motorcade at around 1:45pm, as he and at least a dozen cardinals and bishops were enroute back to the airport to catch a helicopter flight to Etzelbach for a vesper that evening. There, the Pope was in a limousine bearing the white and gold flag of the Vatican City, the smallest city-state in the world with only 1,000 people. Unlike the route to Augustiner, he rolled down his window and waved at a huge crowd as the limo was mastering the sharp corners in slow motion. Sadly however, my poor Pentax had to keel over and expire due to low batteries, but it did not matter. Seeing the person up that close (at the most about 50 meters) and smiling to a crowd brought my day, as well as those who wanted to see him for the first (and perhaps last time for many). I don’t know if anyone I knew had come that close, including a friend and former classmate of mine, who went to the Pope’s sermon in Colorado in 1993 (Pope John Paul II led the Church at that time). But it was one that is worth remembering and justifying marking off my list of things to do before leaving this planet.
There is one caveat that I do regret and that is meeting him eye to eye. Despite his sermon in Erfurt, where he favored tradition over modernization, peace over materialism and greed, and harmony over inequality, if there was an opportunity to ask him one question, it would be this: How do you see society in general, from your point of view and that of God’s, and what would you do to change it? It is a general question, but one that requires a lot of thought which goes beyond whatever sermon he has given to date and beyond the scandals that he and the Church has endured over the past two years. While chances of that ever happening are a million to one, maybe when reading this article, he might consider at least answering it when doing his next sermon.
FLENSBURG FILES FAST FACTS:
- As many as 160,000 people attended the masses of the Pope in Germany including 30,000 in Erfurt, 65,000 in Berlin and 25,000 in Freiburg im Breisgau. Most striking is the fact that in the eastern part of the country, around 60% of the population is not religious at all; especially in Berlin and parts of central and eastern Thuringia. And the statistics can be clearly indicated through a poll conducted by the eastern Thuringian newspaper, OTZ (based in Erfurt) where over 61% of the population were indifferent about the Pope’s visit and only 17% were happy that he came.
- The visit did not come without incident. In Berlin, the Pope was confronted by thousands of people demanding a solution to the problem of sexual abuse in the church. Since the scandal broke out in Bavaria two years ago, the Pope has come under fire for not handling the issue properly although many pastors and bishops have resigned amid scandals both there as well as elsewhere in the country and beyond. In Erfurt, a man opened fire at a group of officers while attempting to break through the barriers. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the shooter who fired four volleys was apprehended.
- While security was tight, the police should be commended for handling the visit in a professional manner, which includes helping guests find their way to their destinations, answering questions about the visit and at times escorting people across the sealed off corridors to help them get to their destinations. This was evident in the photos taken below during the Pope’s trip through Erfurt.
FLENSBURG FILES’ LINKS TO THE POPE’S VISIT AND PHOTOS CAN BE FOUND HERE:
Links (Note- sublinks available here as well):
Photos of the event taken by the columnist on 23 September 2011: