Pope To Visit Southern Germany
Ralph Orlowski  /  Getty Images file
Beer bottles with a picture of Pope Benedict XVI on sale in Marktl, Germany, the birthplace of the pope. Benedict will return home during a six-day visit to Germany begining on Saturday.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 9/8/2006 6:30:01 PM ET 2006-09-08T22:30:01

MAINZ, Germany — "Pope Benedict pastries" — sweet cakes with a cross in the middle — fill bakery windows in the small town of Marktl, the birthplace of Pope Benedict XVI, in anticipation of his arrival in the Catholic-dominated Bavarian heartland on Saturday.

Across town, crates of "Benedict Beer" are being brought in for the expected influx of tourists. And souvenir stores have been stocking up on pope memorabilia.

It seems as if the Vatican is following a cue from the World Cup's marketing campaign: colorful pope hats, pope T-shirts, dish-washer friendly pope mugs, pope umbrellas, pope baseball caps and even pope cigarette lighters have been flooding shops.

The small black- red-and-gold German flags that hung proudly from car windows during the soccer world championship have been exchanged for yellow-and-white flags — the colors of the Vatican.

To top it off, Germany's Benedict fans can get a free download of a new pope song, "Habemus Papam,” on the internet. Two young producers from the city of Cologne wrote the English-language pop song, and it's performed by Fabrizio Levita, a finalist in Germany's 2003 Popstar reality show.

At a time when Catholicism continues to lose its appeal in an increasingly secular world, the Vatican hopes the pope’s homecoming, and all the hype surrounding it, will revive the faithful in Germany — home of approximately 26 million Catholics.

Becoming a pop(e) star
The pope's tight schedule only grants him a 15-minute stop in his hometown, so it is unlikely that Benedict will be confronted with his picture on teddy bears or other paraphernalia. The pope’s six-day visit begins on Saturday in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, and includes a visit to Marktl and several other Bavarian towns. And it is indeed questionable if Pope Benedict is at all a fan of all the publicity.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger seemed overwhelmed — almost shocked — in the beginning, when the 115 cardinals elected him Pope Benedict XIV in April 2005.

"As the trend in the ballots slowly made me realize that — in a manner of speaking the guillotine would fall on me — I started to feel quite dizzy," said the new pope, describing his thoughts during the conclave.

"I thought that I had done my life's work and could now hope to live out my days in peace," Benedict told German pilgrims in an audience in April 2005.

In fact, he had attempted to retire several times, while serving as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II. Even though the German cardinal was already in his mid-70s, the former pope would not accept his resignation.

For the conservative Benedict, who has repeatedly described himself as "a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord,” the first tough challenge came during the 2005 World Youth Day in Germany, when he faced thousands of Catholic adolescents — his new groupies —who cheered him like a pop star.

Teenagers from all over the world wore their national colors, waved flags and chanted "Be-ne-de-to, Be-ne-de-to" all day long — a new experience for Benedict.

"Pope Benedict is humble. He does not come from the show biz like his predecessor," the head of the Benedict order, Notker Wolf, told Germany's Stern magazine this week. 

Mission: Save the church  
Now on his second trip home, Benedict hopes to re-energize the faith of his countrymen once again. “With all my heart, I want the visit to my homeland to reawaken the joy in Christianity,” Benedict wrote in a letter to a church paper, the Muenchner Kirchenzeitung.

The Catholic Church certainly has an uphill battle in its effort to “sell” a positive image and market the pope as a symbolic figure of freedom and religion in order to attract new and old believers.

But can modern image campaigns and pope merchandising really help stop the declining popularity of the Catholic Church? The fact is that Germany's Catholics, roughly equal in number to the country's Protestants, attend church less and less.

"I am surprised about the hype that surrounds our new pope," said Stephan Riedel, a 36-year old Catholic from Munich.

"It seems that many people have forgotten what Joseph Ratzinger has stood for in the past 25 years. But I am amazed how well the pope has handled this new balancing act," added Riedel, an administrator at a local brewery.

The youth are demanding a more modern church. Many young Catholics say that by holding on to the traditional image of the celibate male priest, church leaders are partly responsible for the catastrophic dearth of priests and the many pedophilia scandals. Many Germans also say the church's hierarchy discriminates against women and homosexuals, and that its rigid sexual morals put people off.

‘Benedict Superstar’
Yet, despite the often harsh criticism of the Catholic Church, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to flock to the streets when Benedict arrives in Munich on Saturday. His Mass on Sunday will likely attract more than a million pilgrims.

In Regensburg, one of the locations that Benedict will visit, organizers will shut down a five-mile highway stretch of the A3, one of Germany's main east-west transportation routes. For an entire day, the "autobahn" will be used as a parking lot for tourist buses.

German officials are spending millions to prepare for the visit — 5,000 policemen alone will be deployed across the country to protect the pope. The security preparations are comparable to those during the recent visit of President George Bush.

And, once again, the visit will be a gigantic media spectacle. German public broadcaster ARD alone will be sending more than 800 employees to cover the event. Other broadcasters have built outdoor studios and will use state-of-the-art broadcast technology to cover most of the events live.

All for "Benedict Superstar,” the headline Germany's FOCUS news magazine blared on its front page during his last visit to Germany.

Andy Eckardt is an NBC News producer based in Mainz, Germany. Reuters contributed to this report.

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