Mourners lined up quietly in the gold-adorned Collegiate Church of Altoetting in Pope Benedict XVI’s Bavarian homeland to pay condolences to one of this German region’s most famous sons, who died Saturday.
Parents held their children’s hands tightly, older couples and nuns looked on in sorrow as they waited for their turn to write down their thoughts in a book of condolences, which was laid out next to a black-framed picture of the smiling pope in front of the altar.
The emeritus pope died after a long illness at age 95 in Rome, but many Catholic Bavarians have always felt especially close to him because of their shared ancestry, dubbing him the “Bavarian Pope.”
Believers from across the southern German state headed to the Catholic pilgrimage town of Altoetting to share their grief. The town is famous for its statue of the Virgin Mary, who is said to have miraculous healing powers. Benedict — who was born in the nearby village of Marktl — came here many times, even as a child with his parents, to pray to the “black Madonna,” as locals call her affectionately.
“It’s a pity the pope died,” said Roslyn Scott, a Nigerian who lives in the Bavarian capital of Munich and had come to pray to the Virgin Mary statue in Altoetting when she heard the news of Benedict’s death. “He was just a quiet pope who was most loved by the Bavarian people.”
That love was returned.
In his “spiritual will,” released by the Vatican on Saturday, Benedict also wrote of his love for Bavaria, saying that he “would like to thank the Lord for the beautiful homeland in the Bavarian foothills of the Alps, in which I have seen again and again the splendor of the of the Creator Himself shining through.”
While many Bavarians expressed sadness at the loss, the mayor of Altoetting noted that Benedict “had been preparing for a long time to meet the eternal judge.”
“He has always expressed that and I think he is very calm and very serene about this encounter,” said Stephan Antwerpen.
When the church bells rang loudly in the afternoon, and dusk settled across the town square, people started filling the church pews for a requiem service held by the pastor, Klaus Metzl.
As the priest walked through the aisle, the organ roared, the altar boys and girls waved incense, and the faithful rose and sang.
“Man thinks, the Lord directs,” Metzl said to the crowd inside the church. “Who would have thought this morning that we would gather here later in front of the pope’s photo to commemorate him.”
“Death is the fulfillment of life,” the priest preached. “We all have one goal: heaven.”
Bavaria is considered one of the most Catholic and conservative regions in Germany, so elsewhere in the southern state, clergy were also preparing to pay their last respects to Benedict.
The diocese of Regensburg, where Benedict taught theology at a university in the 1960s and 1970s, ordered that the bells of all the churches will be rung for 15 minutes at noon Sunday.
The state government in Bavaria ordered flags on regional government buildings to be flown at half-staff Saturday and on the day of Benedict’s funeral.
“Benedict spent his life wanting to find the mystery of God and help others find it,” Metzl told The Associated Press.
“I am sure that he has found it now,” Metzl added. “And the mother of God, whom he so loved dearly, will now show him the way.”