Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Not Quite a Love Parade: For Pope's Berlin Pick, "The Lion's Den"

Resolving the second of three cardinalatial sees up for grabs this spring across the globe, on Saturday the Pope named a protege of his closest homeland ally as archbishop of Berlin two months before touching down in the German capital for a state visit.

An auxiliary of Cologne since 2003, the 54 year-old archbishop-elect, Rainer Maria Woelki (right), was revealed as Der Deutschepapst's choice two days after the prelate he succeeds, Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky, died at 75 after a long illness.

Having held the post since just prior to the 1990 reunification of Europe's largest country, Sterzinsky retired for health reasons in February, a month after reaching the canonical age-limit.

Though the freshly-deceased cardinal was a close aide to his own predecessor in the capital, Woelki is arguably cut even more in the image of their common mentor: Cologne's extremely influential Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who was transferred from Berlin to what's said to be Europe's wealthiest archdiocese in 1988. The new archbishop served for seven years as priest-secretary to Meisner -- the German hierarchy's leading conservative -- going from that post to the rectorship of the Cologne seminary before his appointment as an auxiliary.

Given his extraordinarily youthful age and the lack of a surviving predecessor with Conclave rights, Woelki stands poised to become the youngest member of the College of Cardinals at the next consistory; likewise a countryman of Joseph Ratzinger, the current holder of that distinction, Munich's Cardinal Reinhard Marx, turns 58 in September.

Despite an eight-decade tradition of its leaders holding a seat in the "Papal Senate," it was only in the wake of reunification that the Berlin church -- now home to some 400,000 Catholics in a city of 3.4 million -- was made an archdiocese.

In the meanwhile, Woelki's arrival in one of Europe's most progressive capitals has reportedly made for a Reichstag-sized stir given his close ties to Meisner and the move's apparent clash with the city's prevailing cultural trend. According to a Reuters brief, the standard press conference on the appointment -- usually a fairly ho-hum affair in Europe -- had to be moved to a larger venue after the initial coverage of the move portrayed the choice as "reactionary" and "backwards minded," particularly with regard to the hot-button topic of homosexuality, and amplified by an alarmist conflation of the prelate's student days at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross with membership in Opus Dei, which owns the school.

When the time for the meetup came, Woelki denied any ties to the personal prelature outside his doctorate in theology from its Roman house, and pledged his "respect and esteem for all people independent of heritage, skin color and individual nature."

"We will meet with each other... I am open to all without reservations," the archbishop said, adding that "The church is not a moral institution that goes around pointing its finger at people... [but] a community of seekers and believers [which] would like to help people find their happiness in life."

While one paper concluded that, if nothing else, "you can talk with the man of God," another outlet's headline cited Woelki's line as "I have nothing against gays, but...."

With Woelki set to be installed in the prominently-domed St Hedwig's Cathedral (above) over the weeks just prior to the Pope's 22 September arrival for a four-day trek, the sex-talk is a particularly delicate one in the local context as the incoming archbishop now shares the state visit's final planning and hosting duties with the city's openly gay Mayor, a Social Democrat.

The Berlin jaunt will mark B16's second official tour of a European capital with an openly gay city-chief, the pontiff having been welcomed on his 2008 trek to Paris by Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a Catholic who was elected to his second six-year term in the months leading up to that PopeTrip.

The French tour headlined by the Pope's prominent embrace of the concept of "positive laicité" (read: secularism) advanced by the country's thrice-married Catholic President Nicolas Sarkozy, the thought is likely to be reprised in Benedict's message in Europe's second-largest city. Keeping with much of this pontificate's narrative, however, the talks might again be drowned out by controversies and gaffes.

Among others already to surface, the German Pope's invitation to address the Bundestag -- the dominant house of his homeland's Federal parliament -- has garnered criticism from the body's Green delegation (which holds nearly 70 of its seats) and activist groups. And elsewhere, albeit in response to a bigger-than-expected demand for tickets, the selection of the Berlin stadium built by the Third Reich for the 1936 Olympics to host the visit's main Mass has stoked the predictable storm given B16's forced boyhood conscription into the Hitler Youth.