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What Pope's Resignation Means For Tiny Bavarian Town Where He Was Born

A Monastery in Marktl am Inn
A Monastery in Marktl am Inn
Peter Issig

MARKTL AM INN - Not a lot of folks out on the streets on this day after the news arrived. But not because of the wind that slices right through you, or the icy temperature. The 2,700 residents of Marktl am Inn in the German region of Bavaria are holed up inside to avoid the coming onslaught of television crews and journalists.

A tiny village near the border with Austria, Marktl am Inn is where Joseph Ratzinger was born at 4:15 a.m. on April 16, 1927 in the house at Marktplatz 11.

The news was barely out of the Vatican before it had already made the rounds with lightning speed – by word of mouth, via phone. “My aunt burst out crying when she heard,” says one woman who preferred to stay anonymous.

One man who was braving the streets had driven to Marktl from Munich to stock up on some "Papstbier" (Pope Beer) made by the Weideneder brewery in honor of a Bavarian native son. “You never know,” the man says. “Maybe they’ll stop making it now.”

Mayor Hubert Gschwendtner heard the news from both the town hall secretary and a friend. "A most unexpected development,“ he told Die Welt. He’s met the Pope 12 times. "He was always very human, very friendly, extremely easy to get along with," the mayor said.

The last time he saw the Pope was last June when a delegation from Marktl paid the pontiff a courtesy visit in Rome. "Both physically and mentally, he made an excellent impression,” Gschwendtner said. The mayor had no interest in doubting the reasons behind the resignation, if you consider the burden the job entails. "But he always did the right thing at the right time,” the mayor said before hurrying off for a live interview with a local TV reporter.

Having survived the official papal visit of September 11, 2006, however, it would take a lot more than busy rounds of interviews to get Geschwendtner worked up: all of Germany had its eyes on Marktl on that great day six-and-a-half years ago. Pope Benedict XVI visited the parish church of St. Oswald and prayed in front of the hexagonal baptismal font which had been reinstalled in the church in honor of the papal visit – for years it had been lying in somebody’s garden, and then in the local museum.

Hometown retirement?

In the center of town is a column in the form of a scroll dedicated to Benedict. Along with this, the beer, the baptismal font and the Pope’s renovated birth home, the Winzerhörlein bakery also makes "Papstbrot" (Pope Bread) – a dark pound loaf with a white cross on it – and the Tourism Office sells a wide selection of Pope Candles. That’s also where the Guest Book is kept (behind glass) that the Pope signed in his careful small hand: "May God bless this wonderful place! Benedict XVI, Pope," the entry reads.

Mayor Gschwendtner doesn’t think the tourist interest and the money it brings Marktl will dry up now that Benedict is stepping down. He’s done his research. He says that visits to the birth town of John Paul II in Poland actually went up after the pontiff’s death. Marktl has been getting about 100,000 visitors per year.

"Some 15,000 of the tourists visit the house where the Pope was born," says parish priest Josef Kaiser. Anybody who makes a pilgrimage to see the Black Madonna in Altötting usually makes the 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) trip from there to Marktl to take in the papal birthplace – like the international delegation of bishops who by sheer chance came to visit Marktl on the day of the announcement of the resignation, and so visited the Pope’s birthplace on a day that history was made.

Although surprised by the Holy Father’s decision, Father Kaiser says the Pope continues to have his respect. "No compromises, either yes or no --– that’s the way he is," he says. And that’s the way he’s always been adds the 62-year-old priest: "The Pope has always been unequivocal."

That Marktl has for eight years benefited from the impressive career of Joseph Ratzinger, son of Joseph Ratzinger, Sr., a local police officer, is "not an issue," says Father Kaiser who sees it as a question of supply and demand -- and in any case the number of people attending his services has gone up markedly as a result.

Nobody believes that Benedict will return to Marktl. Local resident Monika Kleiner says she believes the former pope will focus “on his books.” She thinks the fact that he is retiring "is on the one hand very sad, but I’m also glad for him. It sure beats staying in the job, old and sick and occasionally being wheeled out."

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