ERFURT, Germany (Reuters) - Indifference, irritation and, inevitably, protest will likely mark a papal trip to the former East Germany that includes an historic meeting in the one-time home of Martin Luther to find ways Catholics and Protestants can work together to save Germany’s soul.
Nearly a quarter of a million Catholics will throng open-air services celebrated by Pope Benedict on his September 22-25 state visit to Erfurt, Berlin, a Catholic enclave at Etzelsbach and staunchly Catholic Freiburg in southwest Germany.
But unlike in the Rhineland and his native Bavaria, where Catholic majorities ensured him a warm homecoming on his two previous visits to Germany as pope, the 84-year-old Joseph Ratzinger will encounter deep suspicion in eastern Germany, an area traditionally Protestant but now mostly atheist after four decades of Communism.
The meeting with Germany’s Protestant leaders will take place in Erfurt’s 13th-century Augustinian monastery, where Martin Luther lived on and off as a Catholic monk from 1505 to 1511 before defying Rome by writing his “95 Theses” in 1517 and later translating the Bible into German.
In the city’s cobbled streets, churches, restaurants and shops vie to claim historical links to the priest behind the Reformation and split with Rome.
Few posters or papal flags welcoming the pope can be seen, though on the steep steps up to the medieval Catholic cathedral a drunk yells instructions to builders erecting an altar for a Mass for 85,000 people.
“He’ll find himself in an unusual situation with a very high number of atheists. It’s a joint challenge for us,” Ilse Junkermann, Erfurt’s female Protestant bishop who will host the historic talks, told German church media.
In the student council room at Erfurt University, Luther’s alma mater, students Karola Lieb and Benno Kirtzel, both 21, say few people their age go to church, which they pin on state disapproval of religion in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).
“The Stasi used to take note if you were very active in the church and you could have big problems,” said law student Lieb.
Kirtzel, who was raised in a tiny Catholic minority in Thuringia where Erfurt is the state capital, is the target of jokes about sexual abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic church.
With a guitar on his back and a plectrum as an earring, he and a youth choir will play warm-up for the Mass in Erfurt and expects Catholic pilgrims “to go back stronger in their faith.”
Lieb describes herself as “very atheist” and disagrees with the pontiff’s prohibition on artificial contraception but believes he has a right to be heard in Germany, as representative of a faith that “influences my values, even though I am not a Christian.”
But she adds: “Most people I know are not interested in going to the Mass and want to leave the city because the trams will stop and the shops will be shut.”
The pope will say Mass for 70,000 at Berlin’s Nazi-era Olympic Stadium on September 22, the same day he meets Chancellor Angela Merkel -- daughter of a Lutheran pastor in communist-era East Germany -- and speaks in parliament.
For the gay, lesbian and humanist groups hoping to mobilize 20,000 protesters on the day, faith or atheism is not the question.
Like left-leaning members of parliament who plan to boycott the pope’s address, the protesters say he has a right to visit his Catholic flock but should not be given a political stage for dogmatic beliefs that they say infringe on human rights.
Benedict’s love of Mozart and “classic German intellectual” demeanor, as one priest put it, do little to recommend him to Berlin, with its image as one of Europe’s most progressive, egalitarian and party-loving capitals.
He even compares unfavorably for locals with John Paul II, his crusading anti-communist Polish predecessor who walked under the landmark Brandenburg Gate with Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1996, a victory lap for two men who helped reunify Berlin.
“They both had similar views of homosexuality but I get the impression that Benedict has really done his utmost to set it down in stone as the church’s position,” Guenter Dworek, of the German Lesbian and Gay Association, told Reuters.
“The pope has no business in my bed,” reads the slogan on free condoms being handed out by the youth wing of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) that governs Berlin.
While police will keep the protesters out of earshot when the pope speaks, Berlin’s gay SPD Mayor Klaus Wowereit showed where his sympathies lay by criticizing Catholic dogma that “belongs to previous millennia.” His security chief Erhard Koerting said it “might do the pope good” to hear the protests.
“Benedict XVI is not the hard-liner he is so often made out to be,” Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the Catholic Church in Germany, argued in Die Welt newspaper.
Conscious of tensions over social issues, but also over the cost of the visit -- which also sparked fury in austerity-hit Spain when the pope attended a Catholic youth rally there -- the church has set up a “Benedict Fund” to combat famine in Africa.
Benedict, a theologian well versed in Luther, will meet Protestant leaders in the flagstoned meeting chamber of the old Erfurt monastery where Luther was received as a novice. The church next door still has the austere stone altar and stained-glass window from Luther’s time.
Lothar Schmelz, curator of the building which ceased being a monastery when the last monk died in 1556 and is now used for spiritual retreats, brims with pride at the rich symbolism of the ecumenical meeting, but cautions against high expectations.
At the snail’s pace of religious diplomacy, where disputes last centuries, the Lutherans want progress on the Vatican’s refusal to recognize them as a church, rather than a wayward congregation, and relaxation of its ban on mixed Protestant/Catholic couples taking communion together.
This would be welcome ahead of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation in 2017, Nikolaus Schneider, head of the German Evangelical Church, told Vatican Radio in an interview which gave a glimpse of ancient grievances still nurtured.
Schneider said the anniversary would be thoroughly ecumenical, “not a boastful celebration to shine our light on the dark background of medieval Catholicism and the rotten popes of that era.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall