(Reuters) - Pope Benedict's visit to his German homeland was bound to provoke harsh words from his critics. The surprise of the event was how bluntly he took his own Church to task and disappointed Protestants ready to work with him.
Despite his frail physique and soft-spoken style, the 84-year-old pontiff delivered a vigorous defense of his conservative views and brusquely rejected calls for reforms, some of which even had cautious support from some bishops.
At the end of his four-day visit on Sunday, Benedict predicted "small communities of believers" would spread Catholicism in future -- and not, he seemed to say, the rich German Church, which he hinted had more bureaucracy than belief.
Some Church leaders fear they may end up with only small communities if they don't consider reforms.
Record numbers of the faithful have officially quit the Church in recent years, often in protest against clerical sex abuse scandals.
"The pope was demanding, almost hard -- not in his manner, but in the essence of his words," Berlin's Tagesspiegel daily commented. "Nobody should be fooled by his fragility."
"The pope sees the signs of the times, but interprets them not as a demand to courageously open up the Catholic Church but, on the contrary, to close its ranks."
Breaking down faith barriers is a major issue in the land of the Protestant Reformation. Christians are equally divided between Catholics and Protestants in Germany and intermarriage and ecumenical cooperation make both sides ask why old divisions still exist.
Politicians from President Christian Wulff down publicly told the pope they hoped his visit would help to bring the churches closer. One suggestion was to allow Protestant spouses of Catholics to take communion when they attend Catholic mass.
Benedict made a historic gesture for interchurch unity by presiding over a prayer service with a Protestant bishop in the Erfurt monastery where the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther lived as a monk before he split with Rome.
But in his speech to Protestant leaders there, he bluntly told them they were mistaken to expect him to come bearing gifts, like a political leader coming to negotiate a treaty.
His hosts, who would have been happy with vague words about the need to look into some problems, instead heard a short lecture about how Christian faith could not be negotiated.... (continued...)