Bavaria: Signs of faith are everywhere

It is long past sunset as we climb a narrow and steep cobblestone path to the top of Cathedral Hill. We arrive on the night before Advent, so it’s mere hours before the march toward Christmas officially begins.

The courtyard is quiet and we have a clear view of Munich lights, about 20 miles south. During daylight, we’d also be looking at the Alps, although they are as much as 125 miles away.

Had we headed up the city’s other sizable hill, Weihenstephan, we would have ended at the world’s oldest brewery, Brauerei Weihenstephan, where Benedictine monks began making beer in 1040. The monastery has closed, but the biergarten and beer making still thrive, under other leadership.

Signs of faith are everywhere in Bavaria, especially during this holiday season of mangers and music.

This is Freising, population 50,000 and about 500 years older than Munich. The ground we stand on is considered sacred. Steps away are the bishop’s castle and a former seminary that has become a conference center. Men in the Catholic hierarchy have met here for centuries. The Cathedral Museum protects an extensive and revered collection of church artifacts.

Joseph Ratzinger at age 18 began his theological studies in Freising, was ordained here and taught theology at the seminary for a while. Today he is Pope Benedict XVI, and Freising is not the only Bavarian city that lays a proud claim to this religious leader’s past.

Ratzinger was the son of a police officer and hotel cook, raised in tiny Traustein, geographically closer to Salzburg, Austria, than Munich. He and his brother still own a house in Regensburg, about 50 miles north of Munich.

The oldest part of Regensburg, a city of 145,000, long ago was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. It hugs the Danube River and is nicknamed the Medieval Miracle of Germany because it was largely untouched during World War II.

The University of Regensburg, which has 16,000 students, counts Joe Ratzinger as its most famous teacher. He was a school administrator and theology teacher for seven years, during the 1970s.

But walk the bridge that links new and old Regensburg, and it’s not the university that looms as the most imposing presence. The twin towers of St. Peter’s Cathedral, built 345 feet high after previous structures twice burned in 1156 and 1172, is the city icon and spiritual center.

We are told this gothic style is rarely seen outside of France. Kings on horseback, gargoyles with human faces, cavernous walls and imposing shadows make the cathedral’s interior a fine setting for high drama.

Visit for high Mass on a Sunday morning, and the music could very well be by Regensburger Domspatzen, the all-boy “Cathedral Sparrows” choir that makes its home here. Its director for many years was the pope’s brother, Georg.

Sharp Gothic spires and moody interiors feed the notion that God’s wrath is something to fear.

A day later we explore Passau, 10 minutes from Germany’s border with Austria, where the more gentle baroque curves of St. Stephen’s Cathedral seem more about rejoicing and the reassurance of heavenly grace.

All roads lead to the cathedral, at the city’s center, and we choose to trudge up Hell’s Alley to find it. Three rivers – the Danube, Inn and Ilz – meet in Passau, and this passageway is especially prone to quick flooding.

The cathedral, built from 1668 to 1693, stays dry because it is on a hilltop.

Passau, population 50,000, contains 50-plus Catholic and three Protestant churches. The owner of one of five breweries in the city is – you guessed it – the Catholic Church.

We arrive at the cathedral in time for an afternoon concert of music from the world’s largest cathedral organ (it has 17,974 pipes). The glistening sculptures and paintings that reach the rafters are as amazing as the sounds that surround us.

Some of Germany’s greatest religious treasures stay in good shape, structurally, because of the kirchensteuer, a church tax of 9 percent on taxable income. The tax is collected by the government and passed on to the churches, making them among the richest in the world.

Catholics benefit the most; they are roughly one-third of Germany’s population, although hikes in unemployment and retirement are challenging the coffers.

News reports also indicate that more Germans are choosing to not affiliate themselves with an organized religion, which means they don’t pay the church tax. It also means they have no place to be married or buried.

For more about the churches of Bavaria, and other reasons to visit:

Note: Mary Bergin was a guest of Munich Airport International and the tourism offices in Bavaria and Munich during this press trip, which involved three other U.S. travel journalists.