Prayers and emotion in ailing ex-pope Benedict’s German home region

The declining health of former pontiff Benedict XVI has sparked a wave of emotion in the region of Bavaria where he was born, while the controversies that marked his time in office remain vivid for many.

Regensburg choir
Members of the Regensburger Domspatzen girls' choir sing during their first appearance during a service at the Regensburg Cathedral on December 18th. Photo: Christof Stache / AFP

A handful of faithful in the German town of Regensburg braved the early morning cold on Thursday to attend mass at the gothic cathedral, where a large portrait of the pope emeritus sits on the altar.

“I am asking you to accompany Benedict on his final journey,” Regensburg’s auxiliary bishop told worshippers.

The hommage to Benedict is particularly poignant in the medieval city on the banks of the Danube, where the former pope lived and worked at the local university for years.

On Wednesday, current Pope Francis called on all Catholics to say a “special prayer” for his predecessor, whose health had worsened considerably in recent days.

READ ALSO: Six things to know about Catholicism in Germany


In Regensburg, everyone has their anecdote about the former pope, who taught at the university between 1969 and 1977 and came back regularly to visit his brother, the leader of the cathedral choir.

“He often came past our house,” said Birgit Steib, 53, on her way out of the morning mass. A biologist by profession, she said she was “shaken” by the news from the Vatican, where Benedict still lives.

“He was a great theologian. I learnt a lot from him,” said Eva Maria Strobel, 64, a religious studies teacher at a secondary school, after a later mass at Saint John’s collegiate church, next to the cathedral.

“He was often in Regensburg. It was like we were in the same family,” she said, recalling the pride felt locally at Benedict’s nomination in 2005. “During mass at the cathedral we all applauded.”

“Everyone is very attached to Benedict XVI here,” said Siegfried Hofer, 53, another local resident and Catholic. “You are very moved when you know that a pope from Regensburg is dying,” he added.

Around 120 kilometres (75 miles) from Regensburg to the south in Benedict’s hometown of Marktl am Inn the mood is also sombre.

“Benedict is very present here,” Amelie, 14, told AFP. “I’m moved by it already a little,” she said of the news of the pope’s ill-health.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI at Munich Airport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Pool | Sven Hoppe

On Wednesday night in Saint Oswald’s church in Marktl, where the young pope, born Joseph Ratzinger, was baptised, a red candle was lit in front of a portrait of the pope.

“Many tourists come to Marktl just because of him,” said Cornelia Haubrich, 59, who lives locally.

She recalls coming “very close” to the pontiff during a visit in September 2006, a “special” moment for her family.


The sympathy felt for one of Bavaria’s most famous sons does not however disguise the bitterness over the scandals which dogged Benedict’s time in office, notably over paedophilia and the Catholic church.

“Personally, I am not his biggest fan because he covered up a lot… that he was responsible for, which was not alright,” Sybille Mandl, 70, told AFP in Regensburg.

As elsewhere around the world, the Catholic Church in Germany has been rocked by child sex abuse scandals, which have caught up with the former pope.


A damning report last January accused him of personally having failed to stop four predatory priests in the 1980s while archbishop of Munich.

Benedict has denied wrongdoing and the Vatican has strongly defended his record.

Karin Frauendorfer, a resident in Marktl, said she was “disappointed by him” over the scandal.

But she believes the episode has also weighed heavily on the former pontiff, and now hopes “he finds his peace”.

By Florian Cazere with Andrea Hentschel in Marktl am Inn

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What is ‘Buß-und Bettag’ and why is it a public holiday in only one German state?

The German state of Saxony has a public holiday on Wednesday for Buß-und Bettag or Day of Prayer and Repentance. What is it and why does no other state mark it in the same way?

What is ‘Buß-und Bettag’ and why is it a public holiday in only one German state?

When does it take place and who marks it?

Buß- and Bettag (Day of Prayer and Repentance) takes place on the Wednesday before Ewigkeitssonntag (Eternity Sunday), also called Totensonntag, a day commemorating the dead. Another way to remember the event is that it always falls on the penultimate Wednesday before the first Advent (which is December 3rd this year).

In 2023, the Day of Prayer and Repentance is on November 22nd. 

It is an official public holiday in the eastern state of Saxony where people get a day off work, while shops and other businesses close. 

A special rule applies in Bavaria: it is not a public holiday so shops are open and people have to work. But young people do not have to go to school or nursery. For teachers, the day is free of lessons, but they still have to work. 

This can create a headache for families trying to find childcare. 

In several states the day is marked as a ‘silent day’. For this reason, there is a ban on dancing (!) in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Saarland, according to German media reports. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s public holidays in 2024

Where does it come from?

Buß- und Bettag is a Protestant Christian memorial day.

It dates back to the Middle Ages, where prayers and reflection were called upon when a country was in a state of crisis or adversity. Its purpose is to urge people to pray, reflect and consider their faith.

Traditionally, there are three parts to the practicing of this holiday.

Firstly, the church intervenes before God on behalf of sinners who feel guilt. Secondly, this holiday is meant to test people’s consciousness before God. And lastly, the church should show its guardian function and devotion towards its people.

People dance

It’s not the time for dancing in some German states. Photo: shbs from Pixabay

Why is it not celebrated Germany-wide?

Buß- und Bettag used to be celebrated across the German-speaking territories and beyond. In 1878, for example, it was celebrated in 28 countries.

During that time it had not yet received a fixed date but was selected individually by countries. After receiving a fixed date from Prussia, other protestant churches followed.

Later on during the Second World War, the date was moved to Sunday to allow more working time, but then moved back to Wednesday post-war. 

It was a public holiday in all German states until 1967, before being abolished by communist East Germany.

After reunification, it was reinstated as a statutory holiday throughout Germany.  

However, at the start of 1995 it was abolished to reduce the burden on employers who became obliged to pay contributions to long-term care insurance.

Only Saxony kept the holiday. But for this reason, employees in the state have to pay a higher contribution to compulsory long-term care insurance.

How is it celebrated nowadays?

In most German states, holiday laws permit that religious employees can take this day off if they request it. For instance, protestants may want to attend a church service.

They can take the day off without a day’s holiday being deducted. However, they are not paid for it unless the employer specifically agrees to it. 

READ ALSO: These are the ‘special days’ when you can get paid time off in Germany

As we mentioned, in Bavaria “Buß- und Bettag” is a public holiday solely for school students, whereas in Saxony, it is a public holiday for everyone.

According to a YouGov survey, around two thirds of people in Germany – 62 percent – would like to see Buß-und Bettag as a nationwide public holiday once again. Meanwhile, just over 21 percent are against having it as a public holiday and 17 percent are undecided.