VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI, an admittedly reluctant traveler, begins a six-day homecoming pilgrimage to southern Germany on Saturday, retracing his roots in Bavaria.
He will briefly visit Marktl am Inn, the town where he was born and spent the first two years of his life, stop at the graves of his sister and parents, and celebrate an outdoor Mass in Munich, where he served as archbishop. He will also meet with German politicians.
"I want to see again the places where I grew up, the people who touched and shaped my life, I want to thank these people," Benedict said in an interview with German TV networks last month, expressing embarrassment about the fuss.
"I blush when I think of all the preparations that are made for my visit, for everything that people do," he said. "My house was freshly painted, a professional school redid the fence."
It is not quite the return the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had envisioned. When he turned 75 in 2002, the professorial prelate had hoped to pack his books and his bags and join his older brother, a priest in Bavaria, in a quiet retirement.
But Pope John Paul II, already ailing and needing the assistance of top aides, turned down a series of requests by the Vatican's doctrinal chief to step down. Then, his fellow cardinals elected him to the papacy last year following the death of the Polish pope.
It will be Benedict's fourth trip and second to Germany, which he first visited to mark the Church's World Youth Day, but he has indicated his travel will be limited.
"I have to say that I've never felt strong enough to plan many long trips," Benedict said in the TV interview. "But where such a trip allows me to communicate a message or where, shall I say, it's in response to a sincere request, I'd like to go."
Cardinal Avery Dulles, an 88-year-old American theologian, said it was perfectly natural that Benedict is "going back toward his roots. As we get older, we tend to like to do that."
He said the trip would also help to correct "all kinds of images of Prussian military discipline. He's not a Prussian, he's a Bavarian," Dulles said from New York on Wednesday.
As he has grown into his job, Benedict seems more at ease with crowds. During a brief visit to an Italian sanctuary a week ago, he seemed surprised by the turnout, even joking after kissing babies and shaking hundreds of hands that, while the visit was listed as "private," it became quite public.
Beyond the personal side of the Bavaria trip, the pilgrimage may give some indication whether a German pope has given new energy to the Roman Catholic Church in largely secular Germany. One of the chief goals of Benedict's papacy is to battle such secular trends, particularly in Western Europe.
During a weekend visit to Spain in July, Benedict hammered away at traditional family values, challenging a government that has instituted such liberal reforms as gay marriage and fast-track divorce.
Benedict is scheduled to return to Rome on Aug. 14.