In what he called "joyful expectation of a great feast of faith," Pope Benedict XVI returned to his native Bavaria Saturday for a six-day visit that is as much nostalgia as it is religious.
His arrival, however, was well out of view of the public. The Alitalia Airbus that brought him and his entourage to Germany taxied to a remote part of the airport. Showing unusual alacrity, the pope was off the front door of the plane before the bulk of the traveling Vatican press corps managed to get out the back door and make it to the press stand.
A stiff breeze ruffled the pope's white robes, along with the German, Bavarian state, European Union and Vatican flags, also managed at one point to whip his white zucchetto — or skull cap — off. Showing remarkable reflexes for a man nearing 80, Benedict caught it in one hand.
But Benedict is making no pretence of being anything but his age.
Speaking to reporters on the plane before it took off from Ciampino, Rome's second airport that is the main hub for cut-rate airlines, Benedict said he was "an old man," and added, "I don't know how many more years the Lord will give me."
Asked if he would make another pilgrimage to Germany, perhaps the capital Berlin, the pope said he would consider such a visit "a gift from the Lord." He did, however, confirm trips to Turkey in November and Brazil in May 2007.
A curious feature of papal trips is how often a man who represents peace and brotherhood is greeted by a military show. Several hundred German soldiers and sailors were lined up, along with a band, to face Benedict Saturday.
They marched off in fine form as he turned to walk a line VIPs, to be replaced by another band of men toting rifles and clad in "lederhosen" and mountain-style caps. Their centerpiece was a volley of three shots as the welcoming ceremony ended.
What the man who was conscripted into the Hitler Youth at 14 and forced to serve in the German army proper before the end of World War II made of it all was not put on the official, or unofficial, record.
Over the next six days the pope will visit his birthplace, the graves of his parents and places where he joined and grew in the church hierarchy until he was called to Rome in 1982 to become the Vatican's top doctrinal authority.
Some half a million pilgrims are expected visit Munich. About 26 million Germans, roughly one-third of the population, are officially Roman Catholics, although it is estimated that as little as 14 percent of them are regular church-goers. Nonetheless, Benedict insisted that "German Catholicism is not as tired as some people think."
Nor, however, is it as compliant as the Vatican might like. During his stay, Benedict will have to deal with a liberal wing that has demonstrated against the Church's rejection of homosexuality, and in favor of allowing priests to marry and women to be ordained.
Still there have been concessions to piety, too. The German daily Bild, said to be the biggest circulation newspaper in Europe, invariably featured a bare-breasted girl on the front page Saturday. But since the pope was the main photo at the top of the page, the girl was placed below the fold, and had her assets covered.