The declining health of former pontiff Benedict XVI has sparked a wave of emotion in the region of Bavaria where he was born, while the controversies that marked his time in office remain vivid for many.
A handful of faithful in the German town of Regensburg braved the early morning cold on Thursday to attend mass at the gothic cathedral, where a large portrait of the pope emeritus sits on the altar.
“I am asking you to accompany Benedict on his final journey,” Regensburg’s auxiliary bishop told worshippers.
The hommage to Benedict is particularly poignant in the medieval city on the banks of the Danube, where the former pope lived and worked at the local university for years.
On Wednesday, current Pope Francis called on all Catholics to say a “special prayer” for his predecessor, whose health had worsened considerably in recent days.
– Theologian –
In Regensburg, everyone has their anecdote about the former pope, who taught at the university between 1969 and 1977 and came back regularly to visit his brother, the leader of the cathedral choir.
“He often came past our house,” said Birgit Steib, 53, on her way out of the morning mass. A biologist by profession, she said she was “shaken” by the news from the Vatican, where Benedict still lives.
“He was a great theologian. I learnt a lot from him,” said Eva Maria Strobel, 64, a religious studies teacher at a secondary school, after a later mass at Saint John’s collegiate church, next to the cathedral.
“He was often in Regensburg. It was like we were in the same family,” she said, recalling the pride felt locally at Benedict’s nomination in 2005. “During mass at the cathedral we all applauded.”
“Everyone is very attached to Benedict XVI here,” said Siegfried Hofer, 53, another local resident and Catholic. “You are very moved when you know that a pope from Regensburg is dying,” he added.
Around 120 kilometres (75 miles) from Regensburg to the south in Benedict’s hometown of Marktl am Inn the mood is also sombre.
“Benedict is very present here,” Amelie, 14, told AFP. “I’m moved by it already a little,” she said of the news of the pope’s ill-health.
On Wednesday night in Saint Oswald’s church in Marktl, where the young pope, born Joseph Ratzinger, was baptised, a red candle was lit in front of a portrait of the pope.
“Many tourists come to Marktl just because of him,” said Cornelia Haubrich, 59, who lives locally.
She recalls coming “very close” to the pontiff during a visit in September 2006, a “special” moment for her family.
– Controversy –
The sympathy felt for one of Bavaria’s most famous sons does not however disguise the bitterness over the scandals which dogged Benedict’s time in office, notably over paedophilia and the Catholic church.
“Personally, I am not his biggest fan because he covered up a lot… that he was responsible for, which was not alright,” Sybille Mandl, 70, told AFP in Regensburg.
As elsewhere around the world, the…