End of the Line: The Pope steps down- a decision of historic proportions

The Catholic Church in Flensburg, Germany  Photo taken in April 2011

History has a way of creating the best out of people. When Pope Benedict XVI was nominated to take over for the deceased Pope John Paul II in 2005, he made history in Germany as the first person in over 450 years to rule the Catholic Church, the highest position in a religion that has prospered for over 2000 years. Eight years later on 11 February, 2013, he made history again- by stepping down from that same post- the first pope to do it in nearly 600 years! Another mark in the history books for both The Church as well as Germany!

The news of his spontaneous decision to call it quits caught the author by surprise, as it came in the midst of the Carnevale season where people can sin to their hearts content until Lent season arrives, which is tomorrow. There have been some mixed reactions to the news of the Pope’s resignation. Many news agencies and even the Protestant Church in Germany view his decision as a sign of respect, knowing the fact that at the age of 85 and with no strength left, it was time to call it quits. Normally when anointed the Pope of the Church, he is expected to rule in the Vatican until his very death. Records show that the Pope has ruled the Church for an average of 23 years.  Yet at the time of their deaths, the average age was 87 years.  When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, he was 85 years old, but had ruled the Vatican for 26.5 years. The longest reigning Pope however was Pope Leo XIII, who ruled for 31 years from 1878 until his death in 1903- at the age of 93! So the decision for Benedict XVI to step down for health reasons is a more logical choice, for he can retire peacefully instead of trudging through every ceremony until it was his time to die.

Yet by the same token, the Pope may have been pressured to leave by the cardinals within his own Church, as in the eight years he  was directing the Vatican, he was beset by numerous scandals that left the credibility of the Church, let alone the Catholic religion, in question. Two key clusters of scandals come to mind: First the sex abuse scandal involving hundreds of priests from churches around the world (including Germany and the USA) and three times as many victims, who have come forward to open up and in some cases, even confront the Pope during his visit. The number of cases are infinite and there are still many that have yet to be closed. The Pope’s responses have still to this day not satisfied both those affected but also the devoted ones who followed him from the start. Some have speculated that he either turned a blind eye or encouraged the priests to abuse the children.  In either case, many have turned their backs on the Church because of the scandal and it was not surprising that public outcry demanding the Pope’s resignation created tremors felt by the Vatican.

The other scandal dealt with his stance on Islam, and in particular, the speech in 2006 at the University of Regensburg, which created a stir among the Muslim community. Again, theories connected with his childhood and his service in the Nazi Army during World War II may have played a role in these comments. Yet, the comments were retracted and the Pope made tried to make peace by visiting the Islamic countries, visiting many Muslim priests and politicians from Islamic countries, and in cases of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, areas that are dominantly Muslim, he pleaded for peace and prosperity within the region and other areas.  While the Pope opened the doors and offered peace to other religions with little or no incident, the relationship with the Muslim was perhaps the most delicate for any action by the pontiff would be watched by many around the world.

Overall, the era of Benedict XVI represented the changing times, something which despite his attempts to return Catholicism to its traditional roots in the face of modernism, had to be embraced in one way or another, regardless of the issues he had to face both within the Vatican as well as with the general public. While he won respect by many for his attempts to open the doors of the Church for people of all religions to enter, he faced so much in terms of scandals and criticism to a point where it drained every bit of energy out of him. It was even noticeable during his visit to central and southwestern Germany in October 2011, when the more energetic and open-hearted Pope passed through the city center of Erfurt, and addressed the crowd at the Cathedral (Erfurter Dom) as well as at a youth camp near Leinefelde in northwestern Thurngia. (A column on the Pope’s visit can be found here.) But when the announcement was made yesterday, he was weak, frail and at his end- similar to what had happened to Pope John Paul II in the last three years of his term before his death.  Perhaps it was high time for him to step down, for it does not pay to rule the Church in a physical state as he was in.  Yet a decision to do just that was historic, something that we will most likely see only once in our lifetime.  While he may be nearing the end of the line (he steps down on 28 February), he left the church open to the next person (most likely a younger cardinal) to take over and continue with his work of restoring the identity of the Church, while at the same time, not alienate the other religions, whether it is the Protestants, the Jews, or the Muslims.

 

The Pope’s Visit from the Columnist’s Point of View- live in Erfurt:

The flag of the Vatican hanging outside the window of a townhouse near Augustiner Kloster


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.

Domplatz fenced off
Behind the scenes at Domplatz: Preparing for Saturday morning mass

 

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.

The Pope's Motorcade at Domplatz

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:

Benedikt XVI mugs at a store near Fischmarkt
  1. 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.

 

Around the corner at the pharmacy near Augustiner Kloster (where the two police officers were standing)
  1. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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):

http://www.mdr.de/thueringen/papstbesuch/papstbesuch120.html

 

http://www.otz.de/web/zgt/suche/detail/-/specific/Erfurter-Domplatz-zum-Papstbesuch-im-Zeitraffer-1022102618

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15403923,00.html

 

Photos of the event taken by the columnist on 23 September 2011:

Police lining up at the front of the motorcade at Domplatz

 

Pope's plane arriving at Erfurt Airport

 

Pope spectators waiting for his arrival at Domplatz (taken in front of the barricade)

 

Directions to Augustinerkloster (due east from Domplatz)

 

Police helping visitors find their way to their destinations

 

German Christmas Market Holiday Pics 1: The Erfurt Christmas Market

The Main Christmas Market at Domplatz at sundown.

Well here I am, on the road again, this time to hunt down the finest Christmas Markets in Germany, and the first one on my to visit happens to be the one not far from my backyard, in the state capital of Thuringia, Erfurt. There are a lot of interesting points of interest which makes Erfurt one of the most preferred places to live. It has the oldest bridge in the state and the last of its kind in Europe with the Krämerbrücke; it has one of the largest cathedrals in Germany the Erfurter Dom, and it has two universities each located on opposite poles of the city with 250,000 inhabitants (minus the suburbs). But when it comes to Christmas time, all of the city is wild and crazy in its Christmas market. For those who have never visited the eastern part of the country, apart from trying its regional specialties, like Vita Cola (equivalent to Coca Cola) and Born mustard, one should take at least a half day to visit the Christmas market in Erfurt. Basically, the Christmas market is divided up into three different segments. There is one in the city center known as Anger. This is strategically located next to the shopping center Anger 1 and it is easily accessible by street car as the two main lines meet here. Going a bit further to the north, one will see another segment of the Christmas market at Wenigermarkt, which is located next to the Krämerbrücke at the east entrance to the structure. There and on the bridge itself, one will find the local specialties in terms of beverages and food, including a local chocolate store, which makes Brückentruffels (thimble-like chocolate lazmoges which melts in your mouth and not in your hand) by hand. But the main attraction is 10 minutes by foot to the west, where the Erfurter Dom is located. 250 square meters of food, folks, and fun are all located right in front of the steps going up to the doors of the cathedral. One can try almost everything at the booths, from Langos (a Hungarian specialty), to Eierpunsch (heated egg nog with whipped cream), to the local Glühwein (mulled or spiced wine). My favorite of these specialties are the Erfurter Domino Steine. To understand what a Domino Stein is, it is a chocolate covered pastry cube with a spread of filling inside it. Germany is famous for its western kind of Domino Stein, made in Lübeck (which is east of Hamburg and Flensburg) and Aachen (which is west of Cologne and Düsseldorf near the border to France). This is made with a thick layer of marmalade sandwiched with pastry on the bottom and marzipan (an almond-flavored paste) on top. However despite the fact that this type of Domino Stein was part of the East German culture and was deemed irrelevant in the eyes of many who just wanted to see a reunited Germany without the socialist mentality, the Erfurter version of Domino Stein exists at the Christmas market in Erfurt! The pastry is not so sweet and there is only a thin layer of marmalade sandwiched between two layers of pasty and covered in chocolate made locally! When I first tried it back in 2001, I fell in love with it right away. Recently, while having an Erfurt English Roundtable at the Christmas market, there were many students who had never tried this specialty before. Therefore, it was my duty to take them there so that they can taste it. Many of them really liked it and some wanted to buy them to take it home with them to share with their families. I usually take 3-4 bags of them to the US when I spend Christmas with my family in Minnesota as they too relish at trying something that is not common over there and can rarely be found in Germany.

But even if you don’t want to try the Erfurt Domino Stein or any of the specialties there, the landscape at Christmas time in Erfurt, and the holiday joy that goes along with that is something that you must see. One can get a picturesque view of the main Christmas market at Erfurter Dom at any hour of the day. Even when the Christmas market closes at 9:00pm at night and the booths are closed up waiting to be opened again the next day, there are still many people who celebrate over Glühwein and another Thuringian specialty that is very common, the Thuringian bratwurst, as the lights on the huts and the Christmas tree keeps shining through the night, the steam from the chestnut locomotive continues to emit the smell of holiday incense, and the cathedral is lit up to a point where one can see it from the plane when taking off or landing at the airport in Bindersleben (a suburb to the north and west of Erfurt). Going through the Christmas market at any time of the day, one will hear the bartender of the Glühwein booth holler at the top of his lungs “Ich habe Trinkgeld bekommen!” (I got a tip) every five minutes, or listen to local musicians play on the streets or in the shopping center Anger 1. Going into the cathedral, one can pay their respects to their loved ones by lighting a candle or see an annual Christmas tree display in the church cellar.  And lastly, one can also see friends and family gathering at the tables of the booths, drinking a Glühwein and reminiscing about the past, talking about the present, and thinking about the future; especially when it comes to children and grandchildren. In either case, if there is an unwritten rule when it comes to visiting the eastern part of Germany, never forget to visit Erfurt; especially at Christmas time, because that is where the Fs are: food, family, friends and especially, fun!

Entrance to the Wenigermarkt part of the Christmas Market from Krämerbrücke
Stores and huts lining up towards the Anger 1 Shopping Center in the city center
Christmas tree overshadowing the huts at the Main Christmas Market at Domplatz
The Christmas tree and the chestnut locomotive oven in the middle of the Main Market at Domplatz