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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 September 2007, 23:42 GMT 00:42 UK
Pope makes sentimental trip to Austria
Pope Benedict XVI has completed a three-day pilgrimage to Austria. Our Rome correspondent David Willey travelled on the papal plane to Vienna and back.

Believers listen to the Pope at the basilica in Mariazell, Austria
Benedict pledged before he became Pope to visit Mariazell
This, the Pope's seventh foreign visit since his election in April 2005, was trailed by the Vatican as a pilgrimage.

It was also a sentimental journey to a land Benedict loves and whose language is his own.

The Pope does not hide his love for Austria and its musical culture and mountain scenery.

He writes fondly in his memoirs about family visits to Salzburg across the river from the small Bavarian town near the Austrian border where he was born and lived as a child.

Benedict had promised before he became Pope to visit the popular Austrian Alpine shrine of Mariazell, where more than one million Catholic pilgrims from central Europe go to pray each year.

He spent a day in the village, which lies in a wooded valley 850m above sea level.

Turbid torrents rush down towards the river Danube by the side of the approach road.

Religious decline

Benedict revered an ancient wooden image of the Virgin and Child, and extolled the spiritual value of going on pilgrimages.

Young people get to know each other and strengthen their religious beliefs, Benedict said.

Pope Benedict addresses the crowd in Mariazell, Austria
The Pope braved the pelting rain to deliver his sermon
It rained all day. We did pass a couple of straggling groups of hikers on the way up the mountain, but most of the selected crowd of 10,000, gathered on the playing field of the local school to see and hear the Pope, had been bussed in by Church organisations.

Over lunch the Pope heard the concerns of some of Austria's 22 Catholic bishops about the continuing haemorrhage of members of their flocks from the Church.

The statistics from the Vatican and on the spot in Vienna do not tally.

The Vatican admits that church membership in Austria has declined from 90%, when the late John Paul II first visited Austria a generation ago, to 72% today.

But local polls put the combined figure of Catholics and Protestants who are active members of any church congregation at under 50%.

Some 30% of Austrians claim no religious affiliation at all.

The official figures come from actual declarations made by people to the civil authorities and from tax returns, for - as in Germany - part of the taxes paid by Austrian citizens goes to their local church.

Low-key welcome

Surprisingly the Pope had no official meetings at all with members of other religions on this trip apart from a brief silent prayer with Vienna's chief rabbi at a monument to the 65,000 Austrian Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates mass in St Stephen's cathedral
The Pope urged renewed respect for Sundays as a day of rest
There were almost no crowds on the streets of Vienna to wave at the Pope as he drove to engagements.

For a former Catholic stronghold of Europe it was a decidedly low-key welcome.

As the great bell of Saint Stephen's Cathedral rang out to welcome the pontiff I could not help recalling that this masterpiece of the foundries was originally cast from the bronze of a Muslim canon captured during two unsuccessful sieges of Vienna by the Turks.

Wisely, the Pope made no reference to this in his speeches.

It could have caused another furore in the Islamic world, as did his reference to the words of a Byzantine emperor considered defamatory by Muslims during a visit to his old university in Germany last year.

Future Pope

The Austrian press saw Pope Benedict as a missionary rather than a pilgrim.

Pope Benedict XVI (R) and Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn
The Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna remained by the Pope's side
He reiterated during his three days all the main points of Catholic teaching including priestly celibacy challenged by many Catholic Liberals in Austria.

He refused point-blank a meeting with the "We Are Church" movement, spawned by the small Church insurrection which occurred in Vienna and Salzburg during the 1990s, mainly as a result of clerical sexual scandals.

Constantly by the Pope's side was his host and former university pupil, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schoenborn.

The beaming cardinal seemed exceedingly contented with the visit. If anyone is looking to spot a future possible Pope, here is a man to watch.

His is the sort of optimism which sees the Catholic Church in Austria not as a glass that is half empty, but one that is half full.

Profile: Pope Benedict XVI
15 Sep 06 |  Europe

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