VIENNA -- Pope Benedict XVI stood silently yesterday before a large stone monument to Austrian Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust, offering a gesture of what he described as "sadness and repentance."
The visit was a significant start to a three-day pilgrimage to Austria to lend succor to a Catholic Church still troubled by a series of sexual abuse scandals, plummeting membership and sapped influence.
The visit to Austria will allow the pope to emphasize some of his favorite themes, including what he sees as the essential Christian identity of Europe, particularly as it is undermined by secularism and fast-growing Muslim immigration. One demographer predicted that at current dropout and birth rates, Catholics may represent only half of Austria's population by the year 2051 (down from 74 percent in 2001), while Muslims could come to constitute 30 percent.
"Europe cannot and must not deny her Christian roots," Benedict said. "Christianity has profoundly shaped this continent."
But as he did last year in Poland and his native Germany, the pope, who grew up during World War II and served briefly in Hitler's army, has had to confront the legacy of the Holocaust and the often problematic relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Judaism.
And so, shortly after arriving here, Pope Benedict stopped at the memorial in Judenplatz, or Jews' Square. The appearance was brief and drenched in rain. With Austria's chief rabbi, Paul Chaim Eisenberg, at his side, the pontiff meditated and then heard the rabbi's prayer. He bowed twice before shaking hands with several elderly representatives of the Jewish community.
Speaking earlier to reporters accompanying him on the papal flight from Rome, Pope Benedict said he wanted to show "our sadness, our repentance" for the Holocaust and "our friendship with our Jewish brothers." The pope's use of the word repentance was especially important, because it recognizes guilt and responsibility, something that Jewish leaders have been seeking.
Turning to Catholics and the primary purpose of his pilgrimage, the pope offered gratitude yesterday to believers who stuck with the church even as it endured a string of scandals.
"I hope that I still can help in the healing of these wounds," Pope Benedict told reporters aboard his flight, adding his appreciation for those who "in a church of sinners nonetheless recognized the faith of Christ."
In 1995, the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, retired amid allegations that he molested young men in the 1970s. In 2004, about 40,000 pornographic images surfaced on seminary computers; they included pictures of seminarians in sexual poses.
Some Austrians have resented the status of the church in governmental affairs: Austria is one of the last European countries to make citizens pay a hefty tax to the Catholic Church and to forbid most stores to open on Sunday.
Surveys published ahead of the pope's arrival painted a dire picture. In one, published by the respected magazine Profil, 82 percent of respondents said the pope's visit was of little importance to them; in another, the pope came in behind Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Dalai Lama in terms of popularity. Die Presse newspaper reported tens of thousands have left the church every year for more than a decade. "Catholic Austria?" a headline said. "Farewell to a myth."
Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.