MUNICH, Germany – Greeted by a thunderous chorus of church bells, Pope Benedict XVI began a pilgrimage to his native Bavaria on Saturday, a six-day visit laden with meaning for him and the future of his increasingly liberal Roman Catholic flock in Germany.
Tens of thousands poured into the narrow streets in this city where he served as priest and archbishop more than a quarter-century ago, before moving to the Vatican as the church's doctrinal watchdog. "My heart beats Bavarian," he assured reporters on his plane from Rome.
Benedict, 79, was welcomed by German President Horst Koehler and Chancellor Angela Merkel before his ride to the city's central Marienplatz square where he prayed at the 17th century statue of the Virgin Mary, the patroness of Bavaria — Germany's Roman Catholic heartland.
On the plane, Benedict told reporters he would like to visit more of Germany in the future, a reminder of his age that brought a hint of nostalgia to the trip.
"I am an old man," he said. "I don't know how much time the Lord will grant me."
"At least one more time, I am getting to see my homeland," Benedict said.
But the visit carries more than nostalgic meaning for Benedict, posing instead one of the prime challenges he has taken on in his 16-month papacy — combating secular trends in the West.
He took this up immediately upon arrival, paying tribute to Bavaria's Catholic tradition over the centuries but acknowledging that "today's social context is in many ways different from that of the past."
"Nonetheless, I think that we all join in the hope that the coming generations may remain true to the spiritual heritage," he said. "My wish is that all my countrymen in Bavaria and Germany together actively participate in the handing down of the foundational values of the Christian faith to the citizens of tomorrow."
Many Catholics in Germany, as elsewhere in the West, complain about Benedict's opposition to ordination of women, gay marriage and married priests.
More than 100,000 Germans officially leave the church every year, at least some of them to avoid paying a church tax levied by the government and used to finance the church. Although the number leaving was down to 101,000 in 2004 from 129,000 the year before, only about 14 percent of German Catholics attend Sunday Mass.
Still, Benedict got a warm welcome. People on the streets waved and cheered, while bells pealed at the landmark Church of Our Lady and other churches.
Susanna Pintaric said she and her 12 children arrived early at Marienplatz to get a spot in the hope of a glimpse of Benedict as he drove by.
"Seeing the pope for us is like seeing Christ," the 43-year-old homemaker said. "He's not just the representative of Christ, he's the person who helps us to live."
But Josef Dari, 30, a native Romanian who is a car salesman in Munich and wore traditional Bavarian lederhosen, criticized the pope's support of the more conservative tenets of Catholicism.
"He puts himself on the same level as Jesus Christ and that's just wrong. The pope should be a preacher, not a holy man. A holy man is someone who performs miracles," Dari said.
The visit is the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's second to Germany, but the first to his Bavarian homeland since his April 2005 election to succeed Pope John Paul II.
Benedict was ordained a priest in Freising, outside Munich, and taught theology at the University of Regensburg and elsewhere before becoming archbishop of Munich in 1977. He left Bavaria after being named the Vatican's chief doctrinal watchdog by John Paul II in 1981.
He'll visit all those places on this trip, including a 15-minute stop in Marktl am Inn, where he spent the first two years of his life. He has said in his memoirs he has no memories of the town, however.
Conservative Benedict's election aroused mixed feelings in Germany — the now largely secular land of the Protestant Reformation and home to a shrinking and distinctly liberal Catholic Church. But there is also strong pride in the German pope, particularly in Bavaria.
On Sunday, Benedict plans to lead an open-air Mass for an expected 250,000 people at the sprawling trade fair grounds on Munich's outskirts.