Thursday, February 24, 2011

PopeTrip Looming, Berlin Falls Open

In September, the Pope is scheduled to make another visit to his homeland -- a state visit to Germany this time, set to climax with B16's first papal trek to Berlin.

Now, though, the first German pontiff in a thousand years will face an important call: picking his host.

This morning, Benedict accepted the resignation of Berlin's longtime archbishop, Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky, all of a month after the capital prelate reached the retirement age of 75 and without a successor chosen.

Named bishop of Berlin -- then a non-metropolitan church -- in 1990 and a cardinal the following year, Sterzinsky became the city's first archbishop in 1994. The cardinal is said to have been in poor health for some time, hence the quick departure.

While B16 has been uniquely generous in extending his countrymens' time in office past their 75th birthdays -- the Pope's own successor in Munich, Cardinal Frederich Wetter, was kept in post even after turning 80 -- the reality remains that, with three of the country's resident cardinals at or near retirement age, the Berlin opening opens the most significant change of senior leadership the German church has seen in decades.

At the helm of what's often called Europe's wealthiest archdiocese, the German bench's leading conservative -- and its senior prelate closest to the pontiff -- Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne is 77, but expected to remain until after a Eucharistic Congress recently set for 2013 to mark the 1,700th anniversary of its local church. Meanwhile, the country's most prominent progressive voice -- the longtime chair of the German bishops, Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz -- turns 75 in May.

Then bishop of Berlin, Meisner was made a cardinal in 1983, the same year Lehmann was named to Mainz.

In both cases, however, Der Deutschepapst will only have a limited say in who takes the posts. Under the terms of the concordat governing Germany's relations with the Holy See, both sees retain provision for the election of the diocesan bishop by their respective cathedral chapters, with Rome confirming the choice. Still, the groups of clerics are bound to choose from the three-name terna for the post presented by the Vatican.

In his one major appointment at home to date, in late 2007 the Pope named Bishop Reinhard Marx of Trier as archbishop of Munich and Freising -- the post Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger himself held from 1977-81.

Having won plaudits for an especially deft reponse to last year's outbreak of sex-abuse revelations in Germany, Marx (above) was elevated to the college of cardinals at last November's consistory. At 57, the media-savvy sociologist -- a co-drafter of this pontificate's social manifesto Caritas in Veritate -- is the youngest member of the papal "Senate" by close to a year.

Benedict's third visit to Germany as Pope after 2005's World Youth Day in Cologne and the following year's "homecoming" in Bavaria, September's state visit is expected to take the pontiff to Freiburg and Erfurt beyond its leg in Berlin.

PHOTOS: Reuters(2)