Benedict XVI says he is on 'the last stretch' of his journey in life

Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 85th birthday today with guests who treated him to Bavarian “oompah” music and folk dancing in the apostolic palace.

Earlier in the day, in an impromptu homily, the Pope had said: “I find myself on the last stretch of my journey in life, and I don’t know what is awaiting me.”

“I know, however, that the light of God exists, that he is risen, that his light is stronger than any darkness and that God’s goodness is stronger than any evil in this world, and this helps me go forward with certainty,” he said.

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Later Bavarian bishops, minister-president of Bavaria Horst Seehofer and a 150-person regional government delegation visited the Pope in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall.

They were accompanied by a small Bavarian band, three female singers and 10 children who danced the skirt-swirling, shoe-stomping, thigh-slapping “Schuhplattler” before the Pope.

The Pope’s 88-year-old brother, Msgr Georg Ratzinger, also attended the festivities as well as representatives from the Lutheran Church and the Jewish community in Bavaria.

The children, dressed in traditional costume, presented the Pope with white flowers and a maypole covered with colourful ribbons. They also recited a German birthday poem.

The delegation presented the Pope with gifts of a wooden crucifix sculpted by a well-known 18th-century Bavarian woodcarver, Ignaz Gunther, and a large Easter basket filled with traditional cakes, dark bread, ham and painted eggs.

In his address to the Pope, Mr Seehofer said Bavaria was still the most Catholic region in Germany and that it was still common to find the crucifix hung in public schools and small roadside shrines maintained throughout the area.

“You’ve always stayed Bavarian and we’re very grateful for that,” he told the Pope.

Among the guests were all seven of Bavaria’s Catholic bishops, including Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising and his predecessor, Cardinal Friedrich Wetter.

In his address, Cardinal Marx thanked the Pope for his fidelity to the faith, saying he was an important example to all bishops of loyalty and obedience.

The Pope, who smiled and clapped during the 40-minute event, thanked everyone present and noted how the different cities, people and ages represented there were “a reflection of all the stages in my life”.

He said the music and instruments reminded him of his childhood. His father used to play the stringed zither, he said, and, as children, he and his siblings would sing “God Greets You”, which was sung at the Vatican event.

“This is the sound of my youth, present and future,” the Pope told his guests.

At the end of the celebration, everyone, including the Pope, sang the Bavarian state anthem.

Earlier in the day, the Pope celebrated a private Mass in the Pauline Chapel with his Bavarian guests and Vatican officials.

In an impromptu homily, the Pope thanked his deceased parents for his birth, which happened on Holy Saturday, and his baptism – another life-giving event – the same day, he said.

The Pope asked whether it was “responsible or too unpredictable” to simply bring forth new life. While life is a gift, “it is surrounded by a larger question,” he said.

“Life becomes a true gift if one can also make a promise, together with [life], that is stronger than any misfortune that can threaten us, that [life] be immersed in a strength that guarantees that it is good to be human,” he said.

That is why birth must be accompanied by rebirth, or baptism, he said, because it is also being welcomed into a community of faith in Christ that gives people the certainty and hope that it truly is good to exist and be alive.

Vatican Radio said greetings from all over the world had been sent to the Pope.

The Vatican even set up a special email address (auguri.benedettoxvi@vatican.va) so well-wishers could send a note marking the Pope’s birthday and the seventh anniversary of his election on Thursday, April 19.

The Pope cut his Easter holiday short by two days on Friday to return to the Vatican from the papal villa in Castel Gandolfo near Rome to spend the weekend with his brother, who travelled to Rome from Germany.

During his “Regina Coeli” address, the Pope asked people to pray for him, “that the Lord give me the strength to accomplish the mission he entrusted in me”.

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