Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Pope's Birthplace, the Letdown Appears Complete ; Town Never Prospered as Much as It Had Hoped from Link to Famous Son

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Pope's Birthplace, the Letdown Appears Complete ; Town Never Prospered as Much as It Had Hoped from Link to Famous Son

Article excerpt

The German town where Pope Benedict XVI was born never prospered as much as it had hoped from its famous son, and it seems likely to get even fewer visitors after he steps down.

If we rebuild it, they will come, thought the residents of Marktl am Inn, Pope Benedict XVI's hometown, and for a while they did. But visitors to the museum in the house where he was born, brightly repainted in the white and yellow colors of the Vatican, had begun to taper off well before his abrupt resignation this week.

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became pontiff nearly eight years ago, there were high hopes that his elevation would put the Bavarian village on the map. Mayor Hubert Gschwendtner set up a tourism board, sponsored by the regional authorities, the local bank and the village of Marktl. He established an information office in the foyer of City Hall and published pamphlets in German, English, Italian and Polish.

In the first few years, about 200,000 people came annually to see Benedict's birthplace. Lately, the number has fallen to half that, and with the pope stepping down, it is likely to fall further. "For Marktl it is a bit sad," Mr. Gschwendtner said of the pope's decision to step down.

Marktl's letdown reflects in many ways Germany's experience with its first pope in half a millennium: enthusiasm followed by a reality check. Benedict was not the same sort of charismatic pope as his friend and predecessor, Pope John Paul II. More important, perhaps, Germany is not Poland, John Paul's more Roman Catholic homeland.

It was something of an odd match right from the start, the dedicated, conservative theologian and his largely secular, socially liberal home country. Germans treated his "victory" as pope almost like winning an Olympic gold medal or the Eurovision song contest.

The reality was a little different. Just one year after he became pope, Benedict angered Muslims with a speech in his longtime home, Regensburg, in which he quoted a reference to Islam as "evil and inhuman." Serious allegations that there had been child sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising when he was archbishop there surfaced during his tenure as pope. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized him after he revoked the excommunications of four schismatic ultraconservative bishops, including one, Richard Williamson, who denied the Holocaust.

"We are not pope," many Germans said in Twitter posts in the hours after his announcement, some in jest and some with an apparent twinge of sadness, a reference to the now-famous headline in the tabloid Bild, "We Are Pope," that captured the German enthusiasm at Benedict's election in 2005. More than a few joked that the pope had actually stepped down because he had passed off Bible passages as his own one time too many -- a reference to the plagiarism scandal that has claimed two members of Ms. Merkel's cabinet, most recently on Saturday, when the education minister stepped down.

Detlef Schuricht, a native of Berlin, and his wife drove 30 minutes through the snow-covered hills of Bavaria from a nearby vacation resort to Marktl on Tuesday. Neither of them is Catholic, but they figured that since they were nearby, it would be an appropriate way to honor the first German to lead the Catholic Church in centuries.

But they found the museum closed, as it is from Nov. 1 to Easter Monday every year. That was better than the butcher shop, where a sign taped to the door reads, "Closed since Dec. 2, 1997," the day the butcher who ran it died. Across the street, large flakes of pale green paint peel off the front of the Gasthof Strasser hotel, and the windows are caked in dust. …

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