JUERGEN BAETZ/Associated Press
VICTOR L. SIMPSON/Associated Press
FREIBURG, Germany (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI issued a strong call for spiritual renewal among Germans, as he wrapped up a visit to his homeland in which he addressed parliament and met with victims of clerical abuse.
The pope drew hundreds of thousands of German faithful to services held on stops during his trip, including a final Mass early Sunday that attracted about 100,000 people to an airfield beside Freiburg's airport.
In his parting words before leaving for Rome late Sunday, Benedict wished Germans "strength and confidence" in their faith, underlining a message repeated at each stop of his four-day trip.
From Berlin to Erfurt and, finally Freiburg, Benedict stressed the importance of faith, whether as the basis for a thriving democracy or as a force that helped to resist communism in the former East Germany. He stressed the need for Roman Catholics to show unity with Rome, which he said has no intention of bowing to groups demanding changes in the church's teaching.
"The church in Germany will continue to be a blessing for the entire Catholic world if she remains faithfully united with the successors of St. Peter and the Apostles," Benedict said in his homily.
Germany's church has seen large numbers of faithful quitting the congregation in recent years, including a record 181,000 who left following last year's clerical abuse scandal in Germany.
Benedict sought to address the issue, holding a closed-door meeting with five victims of clerical abuse on Friday, and alluding to the scandal in his speech to Catholics on Sunday afternoon, mentioning "other painful scandals on the part of the preachers of the faith."
In his Sunday homily, Benedict strongly urged Catholics to let their lives be guided by their faith, saying even those who doubt God's existence "are closer to the kingdom of God than believers whose faith is routine and who regard the church merely as an institution, without letting their hearts be touched by faith."
The pope's remarks to his German flock are "an encouragement to follow the path of faith in today's society," the head of the country's Bishops Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch said Sunday.
Yet many Germans heavily contest the church's teaching on such issues as priestly celibacy, contraception, homosexuality and a ban on women becoming priests. Protesters staged demonstrations at all three stops of his journey, with about 9,000 decrying the church in Berlin.
While acknowledging the challenges of a declining flock, the pontiff made clear the church should not be considered just another organization, but instead was built to carry out Christ's mission.
"For some decades now, we have been experiencing a decline in religious practice and we have been seeing substantial numbers of the baptized drifting away from church life," he said in a speech to Catholic laymen.
"This prompts the question: should the church not change?"
He then answered that question by citing Mother Theresa as saying the first thing that she would change in the church would be "you and I."
Earlier during the trip, the pope also told seminarists that the church's mission cannot be subject to changing trends or majorities.
"There can never be a majority against the apostles, against the saints. Then it is a wrong majority," he said Saturday according to a transcript from Radio Vatican.
The pope's call in his Sunday homily for a perpetual spiritual renewal, meanwhile, was well received.
"He made it clear that the church must be lively, that it's not about the organization but about what one has in his heart," said pilgrim Julia Eibeck from Stuttgart.
Others said experiencing a Mass led by the pope combined with the feeling of community was a unique experience for them.
"It's all about a joint experience, you see how many people turn out to pray with the pope, that creates a dynamic of its own," said Joachim Zimmermann, 51, from Freiburg.
Some, however, criticized the pope failed to discuss the church's own failings in addressing the faithful.
"The pope spoke about humility and responsibility. But he failed to mention the church's own responsibility regarding the issue of sexual abuse cases," said Stefan Haak.
"The church, too, is fallible," said the 46-year-old from Freiburg, who had brought his two children to attend the Mass.
Benedict alluded to the dissent in Catholic ranks on Saturday night, when he said that through the years "damage to the church comes not from opponents, but from uncommitted Christians."
The 84-year-old pope has seemed tired at times during the four-day-visit, but his spokesman said "he's extraordinarily well" despite the heavy schedule.
"We are surprised that he managed so well this trip that was so intense. It's a great satisfaction for us," Federico Lombardi said.
Melissa Eddy in Berlin contributed to this report.