Pope holds mass for 70,000 at Berlin stadium

Pope Benedict XVI rode at a snail`s pace around the stadium`s distinctive blue athletics track in his white popemobile.

Berlin: Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday celebrated an open air mass before some 70,000 Catholics in Berlin`s Olympic Stadium as rain fell on the opening day of his first state visit to his native country.

The 84-year-old pope was welcomed by a packed crowd, with many, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, wearing transparent plastic ponchos against the drizzle.

Others waved flags and sang hymns. Several children were wearing yellow scarves emblazoned with "Gott ist Zukunft" -- "God is the future”.

The pope rode at a snail`s pace around the stadium`s distinctive blue athletics track in his white popemobile as babies were passed to him for blessing.

Some 30 people, chosen at random, received Holy Communion from his hands at an altar set up below a large yellow cross in the stadium built to showcase the 1936 Olympic Games under Adolf Hitler.

The stadium now plays an important role in Berlin`s cultural and sporting life. It is home to the capital`s only Bundesliga football team, Hertha Berlin, and often plays host when the German national side plays.

Christoph Paffhausen, a 36-year-old insurance salesman wearing a "we are pope" badge -- in reference to the headline carried by Germany`s top-selling Bild newspaper when Benedict was elected pope in 2005 -- expressed joy at being able to take part in the mass.

"It brings out a strong feeling of community" among the faithful, he said.

Andrea Schlotter, 43, who travelled to Berlin from the western city of Duesseldorf with a group of schoolchildren, said she was deeply moved to see the pope in the flesh, and was happy to have "a German pope", the first in some 500 years.

Elysabeth Kissler, a 36-year-old archivist from the southern city of Munich, said a boycott earlier in the day by some members of Parliament of the pope`s speech was "stupid" and "intolerant".

"It`s wonderful to see all these thousands of people who have come to see the pope," she said.

Wearing a green cassock and a gold-braided mitre, Benedict briefly referred to recent abuse scandals that have rocked the Church saying this reflected "the sad experience that the Church contains both good and bad fish".

Among the congregation were Merkel, herself the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, President Christian Wulff, a divorced and remarried Catholic, and Klaus Wowereit, the openly gay mayor of Berlin.

Up to 10,000 opponents of the pope rallied in the city centre on Thursday, some dressed as condoms or spiteful nuns, in protest against his opposition to artificial contraception, homosexuality and a more prominent role for women in the Church and his handling of the paedophile priest scandals.

Bureau Report

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