Caroline Neumayer, a resident of the tiny German town of Marktl am Inn, birthplace of Pope Benedict XVI, still fondly remembers the moment she met her hometown’s most famous son.
“When he was in Marktl in 2006, he got out of his Popemobile and came up to me and my friends. He took us by the hand. It was a beautiful and meaningful moment,” said the 18-year-old.
Neumayer said she thought the sudden announcement Monday that Benedict will resign later this month was a “carnival joke” as much of Germany swings into festive carnival mood in the run-up to the Christian period of Lent.
“I find it sad because he wasn’t pope for very long,” she said.
With tears rolling down her face, an older resident of the Bavarian town, Karin Frauendorfer, 60, said the resignation was “a bad thing in itself, but justified given his poor state of health”.
“I think that what he did deserves a lot of respect,” she added, noting that a potential successor might find the burden of the papacy easier to bear with Benedict still there to help him.
“I have of course been to see the Urbi et Orbi,” she sobbed, referring to the papal address given in the Vatican.
The market town of Marktl am Inn, in the predominantly Catholic southern German state of Bavaria, has done well out of its most well-known former resident, born there in 1927.
In the first two years after Benedict became pope in 2005, some 200,000 people per year flocked to his birthplace, said mayor Hubert Gschwendtner, 64. The annual procession of visitors has since dropped to around 100,000 but Gschwendtner said he was not worried about the consequences of Benedict’s resignation on his town.
“I don’t think we won’t have visitors any more,” he said.
He too expressed “understanding” for the pope’s decision although he said he was “surprised” as the last time he saw the pontiff, in June, he had given the impression of a very fit man.
“At the age of nearly 86, to be fit every day is an enormous burden,” he said.
The local priest, Josef Kaiser, 62, said Benedict’s elevation to the papacy had swollen his flock but “these were just visitors”.
“For our own church community, the choice of pope did not change anything. People did not become more believing. Like everywhere else, we had a fall in numbers after the abuse scandal” that hit the Catholic Church in Germany and elsewhere. “We don’t know what will happen now.”
The priest said the town had been criticised for attempting to cash in on the image of the pope, selling pope beer and bread but he defended the actions of the community.
“There’s absolutely nothing else in Marktl. Before the pope, there wasn’t even a postcard of the place,” he said.
“I don’t drink pope beer, it tastes disgusting, really horrid. But I am pleased that I have in my church the only font that has baptised a German pope.”
And despite the sign advertising “Vatican bread” and papal cake, the local baker says it was a long time since he had made extra money from the pope’s fame. Initial hopes of an economic boost from the pope have long since evaporated, he said.
But Germany’s pride in having a compatriot as pope, once famously encapsulated in a tabloid headline “We are Pope”, can still be found in this place, home to fewer than 3,000 people.
Maximilian Liedl, 59, professed himself “very surprised” by the news.
“My wife rang me and I could hardly believe it. But he will know why he did it. It’s better that he resign than he talks rubbish. But I still find it sad,” he said.
“The pope and I have the same belly button,” he added proudly. “The same midwife tied our umbilical cords at birth.”