Black ribbons, candles: ex-pope Benedict’s German home region in mourning

When Kurt and Anna-Maria Spennesberger heard the news about former pope Benedict XVI's death, they immediately got into their car and drove 200 kilometres to the former pontiff's southern German birth town Marktl.

A picture of late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is seen near the altar during a worship in the Catholic St Oswald church in his birth place Marktl,
A picture of late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is seen near the altar during a worship in the Catholic St Oswald church in his birth place Marktl, southern Germany, on December 31, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

They had to be at the small town bordering Austria for a special church service saying farewell to Benedict because “we knew Ratzinger personally,” said Kurt, 71, using the ex-pope’s birth name.

“We already had some personal conversations with him, meetings, and that was simply a very human, personal contact,” he added.

Renate and Dane Cupic, 58 and 68, also travelled to Marktl from Austria, about 15 kilometres (10 miles) away, on hearing about Benedict’s demise.

It was “very important” to be there to “say goodbye”, said Dane.

The small town in the southern region of Bavaria, with a population of around 2,800, is synonymous with Benedict.

Candles are seen under the Benedict Column by German artist Joseph Michael Neustifter, as people walk by the the birth house of late former Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Marktl, southern Germany, on December 31, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

The house where the former pontiff was born in 1927 stands adjacent to the town hall, which itself is just a few steps away from St Oswald church where Benedict was baptised.

Candles have been placed at the foot of the Benedict column which stands by the town hall, while a black ribbon hangs down from the flags of papal coat of arms at his birth house and at the church.

Across Bavaria, flags at official buildings have also been ordered to fly at half-mast.

“We are mourning our Bavarian pope,” said Markus Soeder, state premier of the region.


Hours after Benedict’s demise, cars began streaming into Marktl slowly as Catholics in the region travelled in to mourn one of their own.

Benedict has always kept in touch with Bavaria — where he taught at the university in the town of Regensburg between 1969 and 1977, and returned regularly to visit his brother, the leader of the cathedral choir.

Speaking in Pentling, the district in Regensburg where Benedict once lived, his former gardener Robert Hofbauer described the ex-pontiff as someone who was always “nice and friendly to everyone, the entire neighbourhood”.

Across Bavaria, church services planned for the last day of the year were turned into remembrance ceremonies for Benedict, including in Regensburg where the cathedral was packed with around 300 people.

Candles are seen near a picture of late former Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the Catholic St Oswald church in his birth place Marktl, southern Germany, on December 31, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

One parishioner paying her respects, Hilde Eisenhut, reflected on “a link with him — he was Bavarian — I did my confirmation with him,” the 61-year-old recounted.

In Marktl, about 130 kilometres away, around 200 people attended the service at St Oswald church, where a portrait of Benedict draped with black cloth stood next to a Christmas tree. Another was placed on the other side of the altar.

During the service, Franz Haringer, who is theological director at Benedict’s birth-house — now a museum — underlined the former pope’s “humorous side” and hailed him as a teacher of the faith.

Many others present also had personal memories of the ex-pope, like Josef Oberhuber, 71, who recalled filming him during his visit in 2006.

Oberhuber, a Marktl local, underlined the significance of a pope hailing from the small town.

“It was naturally a great event — such great joy,” he recalled.

Another local, Karl Michael Nuck, 55, recalled Benedict blessing his daughter.

“He was not pope yet but a cardinal. He took quite a few minutes even though it had not been planned, that was a very nice thing.”

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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.