Last year all eyes were on Pope Benedict’s successful visit to the United Kingdom, and now we are at the brink of what I think could be an equally momentous visit: the first official state visit to Germany. And while 100 parliamentarians plan to be somewhere else than the Bundestag tomorrow (and Archbishop Zollitsch optimistically hopes they’ll give the pope’s address a good read afterwards), while protesters claim to be able to muster several tens of thousands to their cause (and the Holy Father is rumoured to have some trepidation because of that – not that it’ll keep him away from his native country), and while even Hans Küng is stirred from his slumbers to make some old-fashioned comments, many thousands of people from Germany and abroad eagerly await to papal shoes setting foot on the concrete of Berlin’s Tegel airport.
If the UK visit is anything to go by (and that remains to be seen), this visit certainly has the potential to stir things up and reinvigorate the German faithful and Church, and even those beyond. And what with Germany’s leading position in Europe, this visit is in many ways a visit to Europe as well. What the pope will say and do will have a bearing on Germany, but. I expect, no less on all Europeans, especially those in the secularised west. As the Holy Father said in his televised address three days ago: “[I]n these days we want to try to return to seeing God, to return to being persons through whom the light of hope might enter the world, a light that comes from God and helps us to live.” The hearts and minds of the people of the secularised west must be reopened to God, so that He may become visible again in our lives. The visit will therefore be a missionary visit: like Saints Paul and Peter travelled to strengthen the faith of small Christian communities, so does the Successor of Peter visit the Christian communities, Catholic or not, of Germany this week.
For Archbishop Rainer Woelki, installed less than a month ago as Berlin’s ninth bishop (and second archbishop), this will the big event he never had the time to prepare for, and the one his predecessor, Cardinal Sterzinsky, had hoped he would live long enough to see. But Archbishop Woelki, who will welcome the pope upon his arrival in Berlin tomorrow, will be used to the rocky start of his heading the Church of Berlin; one day after his own installation, he was called upon to consecrate new Bishop Ipolt of Görlitz, one of Berlin’s two suffragan dioceses. Having the pope come for a visit will perhaps be something of a matter of course now. Although his joy, his awe and his desire to impress the magnitude of this occasion on the people of Berlin do shine through in a letter which was read in all churches of the archdiocese this weekend.
And it is a momentous occasion. For the pope, certainly, who has few chances to visit the country where he grew up and which he clearly loves. But also for the Church in Germany, for the people of all faiths and also for the political world in and beyond Germany. The pope comes as a head of state, certainly. He was invited as such by the federal president. But the pope can never be just a head of state. He also comes as the Successor of Peter as the visible head under which all Catholic faithful are united, as the man to whom Christ Himself entrusted the care of His Church in these times. We do well to give him our ear and our mind, and pay loving attention to what the Holy Father will teach and express in the coming days.
Because, as the motto of this papal visit says, Where God is, is the Future!
Photo credit:  Reuters/Tobias Schwarz ,  Sean Gallup/Getty Images