Pope Benedict leaves Munich for visit to Altoetting and his hometown, Marktl am Inn

Monday, September 11th 2006, 6:07 am
By: News On 6

ALTOETTING, Germany (AP) _ Pope Benedict XVI traveled to the city of Altoetting to hold Mass on Monday, as his sentimental homecoming to Bavaria drew well-wishers and Roman Catholics eager to hear his words.

Benedict left Munich by helicopter for the short hop to the city, where he was met by Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber and Wilhelm Schraml, the Bishop of Passau, along with thousands of people eager to catch a glimpse of the 79-year-old pontiff and hear him hold Mass.

The Kapellplatz square was surrounded by church spires, with the small Chapel of Mercy _ where the pope was to pray at the beginning of his visit _ at one end and the stage where he would deliver Mass at the other end. Red and gold banners hung from its balconies.

Cars had to park outside the town limits. People filled the sidewalks and squares along the route where the pope would ride through in his ``popemobile.'' A girl with a sleeping bag napped in the door way of one shop.

Businesses along the route put posters in windows welcoming Benedict. A Mercedes-Benz dealership hung a large papal flag and a banner reading: ``We welcome Pope Benedict very warmly to Altoetting.''

Across the road, another banner said ``Welcome home, Holy Father.''

Pilgrims gathered in the Dultplatz, a square near the papal route, as early as 2:30 a.m.

Inside the square, a beer tent was set up and open for business, with sausages sizzling on the grill. No beer was to be sold until the afternoon, after Mass had ended.

``There are some people who might drink two or three beers and then get rowdy. This is something that we want to avoid today because this is our only chance, because the pope probably won't be back,'' said Peter Winke, 47, a representative of the Brauerei Hackelberg brewery. ``The next pope will probably be African or Italian and won't come to Bavaria.''

Others along the planned route were excited about the chance to see their German pope.

``This is a really big thing _ I've never seen a pope before,'' said Juergen Tauer, a 38-year-old computer technician from the Bavarian town of Degendorf who took the day off to travel to Altoetting with his wife and three children. ``It's great that the pope is coming to Altoetting.''

``Pope John Paul was a great figure for young people, and I think he can do the same. I hope he can step into those footsteps,'' Tauer said.

At the Mass, Benedict said that Western society _ including his fellow Germans _ often shut their ears to the Christian message, but the pope insisted that science and technology alone could not combat AIDS and other social ills.

Addressing 250,000 pilgrims in Munich, Benedict said modern people suffered from ``hardness of hearing'' when it came to God, and complained that ``mockery of the sacred'' was viewed as an exercise in freedom.

He said Sunday that faith must come first before progress can be made on social problems such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa.

``Hearts must be converted if progress is to be made on social issues and reconciliation is to begin, and if _ for example _ AIDS is to be combated by realistically facing its deeper causes,'' Benedict said.

The message was consistent with church teaching that sexual abstinence and faithfulness to one's spouse _ and not condoms _ are the best way to fight the disease.

``Put simply, we are no longer able to hear God _ there are too many different frequencies filling our ears,'' Benedict told the crowd of people, who stood quietly shoulder-to-shoulder on a field on the outskirts of Munich, where he served as archbishop from 1977 to 1982.

The need for Western Europe to return to its Christian roots is one of Benedict's favorite themes, and he is repeating it during his visit to his native country _ home to a shrinking and liberal Catholic Church and a highly secularized society. More than 100,000 people leave the German church every year, and only about 14 percent attend Mass on an average Sunday.