Believers gather in a Bavarian pilgrimage town to mourn the Pope

ALTOETTING, Germany (AP) — Mourners lined quietly in the gold-adorned collegiate church of Altoetting in Pope Benedict’s Bavarian homeland to offer condolences to one of the German region’s most famous sons , died on Saturday.

Parents held their children’s hands tightly, older couples and nuns looked at them sadly as they waited their turn to write their thoughts in a book of condolences, which was laid out next to a black framed photo of the smiling pope in front of the altar.

The Pope Emeritus died after a long illness at age 95 in Rome, but many Catholic Bavarians have always felt particularly close to him because of their common ancestry, dubbing him the “Bavarian Pope”.

Believers from across the southern German state traveled to the Catholic pilgrimage town of Altoetting to share their grief. The city is famous for its statue of the Virgin Mary, which is said to have miraculous healing powers. Benedict – who was born in the nearby village of Marktl – came here several times, even as a child with his parents, to pray to the “Black Madonna”, as the locals affectionately call him.

“It is a pity that the pope is dead,” said Roslyn Scott, a Nigerian who lives in the Bavarian capital of Munich and had come to pray to the Virgin Mary statue in Altoetting when she heard the news of the death of Benedict XVI. “He was just a silent pope who was most loved by the Bavarian people.”

While many expressed sadness over the loss, the mayor of Altoetting noted that Benedict “has been preparing for a long time to meet the Eternal Judge.”

“He has always expressed that and I think he is very calm and very serene about this meeting,” said Stephan Antwerpen.

When the church bells rang loudly in the afternoon and dusk settled in the town square, people began to fill the pews of the church for a requiem service hosted by Pastor Klaus Metzl.

As the priest crossed the aisle, the organ roared, the choir boys and girls waved incense, and the faithful rose and sang.

“Man thinks, the Lord directs,” Metzl told the crowd inside the church. “Who would have thought this morning that we would gather here later in front of the pope’s photo to commemorate him.”

“Death is the fulfillment of life,” preached the priest. “We all have one goal: paradise.

Bavaria is considered one of the most Catholic and conservative regions in Germany, so elsewhere in the southern state, clergy were also preparing to pay their last respects to Benedict.

The diocese of Regensburg, where Benedict taught university theology in the 1960s and 1970s, ordered that the bells of all churches be rung for 15 minutes at noon Sunday.

The Bavarian state government ordered flags on regional government buildings to be lowered to half-mast on Saturday and the day of Benedict XVI’s funeral.

“Benoît spent his life wanting to discover the mystery of God and helping others to discover it,” Metzl told The Associated Press.

“I’m sure he’s found it now,” added Metzl. “And the Mother of God, whom he loved so much, will now show him the way.”

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