In the Pope's Footsteps; This Weekend, Benedict XVI Is Back in Germany, His First Public Appearance since His Inauguration. If the Flood of New Tourists Visiting His Birthplace in Bavaria Is Anything to Go by, He Needn't Worry about His Popularity

Article excerpt


WHEN Joseph Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, the first German Pope in 1,000 years, what made the headlines was that he'd been a member of the Hitler Youth. Yet there was little mention of the fact that he'd spent most of his life in the most picturesque part of Germany - the corner of Bavaria between Munich and the Alps.

A tour of Benedict's Bavaria is the perfect introduction to the Vatican's new pontiff, and a great way to get to know the land he loves. You can treat it as a pilgrimage or a holiday. For me, it was a bit of both.

Benedict XVI was born in 1927, the youngest of three children, in Marktl am Inn, a village near the Austrian border. His father was a policeman.

The shuttered, whitewashed house where he was born isn't open to the public, but that may soon change.

The current owner, Claudia Dandl, has had enough of uninvited visitors, and is selling up. Quite what will become of this quaint old place is unclear, but Marktl's mayor, Hubert Gschwendtner, hopes it will become a museum dedicated to the new Pope. If you fancy putting in a bid, you've got until Monday to make Frau Dandl a decent offer.

In the meantime, most sightseers head for the church, a plain but atmospheric building decorated in dramatic modern style. The visitors' book has names from as far afield as South Africa and Hong Kong.

Since Benedict's inauguration, Marktl has hogged most of the media attention, even though he grew up in Hufschlag, a hamlet near the market town of Traunstein, beneath snowcapped mountains. A stone tablet adorns the Hansel-and-Gretel house where the 265th pontiff used to live.

It's strange to think that the leader of the world's billion Catholics spent his childhood in this idyllic spot, surrounded by Alpine meadows full of wild flowers. In Traunstein is the seminary where Benedict trained for the priesthood, alongside his elder brother, George. In the market square is the Baroque church where he first celebrated mass in 1951.

Benedict completed his theological studies in the town of Freising, which dates back to the Stone Ages. The cathedral where Benedict was ordained is in a spectacular spot, with views of Munich and the Alps.

It was in Munich that he first worked as a chaplain - initially at St Martin's, in the suburb of Moosach, then in another suburban parish, the Church of the Holy Blood in Bogenhausen.

Visiting these churches, and the quiet streets that surround them, it's thrilling to reflect that their young priest went on to become the Pope.

Yet for a long time, Benedict looked set to be an academic. He Boomtime: souvenirs featuring the new Pope can be found all over Bavaria took a doctorate in theology at Munich University, at the elegant college buildings beside the Englischer Garten, Munich's largest and lushest park. After appointments at several German universities, he ended up as Professor of Theology at the university in Regensburg, not far from the Czech border.

Benedict was called back to Munich in 1977 to become the Bavarian capital's archbishop. His place of prayer and worship became the Frauenkirche, Munich's onion-domed cathedral, beautifully restored inside and out since the Second World War. …