Pope Benedict XVI began a pilgrimage to his native Bavaria on Saturday, a six-day visit laden with meaning for him and the future of his increasingly liberal Roman Catholic flock in Germany.
Tens of thousands poured into the narrow streets in Munich, where he served as priest and archbishop more than a quarter-century ago before moving to the Vatican as the church's doctrinal watchdog.
"My heart beats Bavarian," he assured reporters on his plane from Rome.
Benedict, 79, was welcomed by German President Horst Koehler and Chancellor Angela Merkel before his ride to the city's central Marienplatz square where he prayed at the 17th-century statue of the Virgin Mary, the patroness of Bavaria Germany's Roman Catholic heartland.
On the plane, Benedict told reporters he would like to visit more of Germany in the future, a reminder of his age that brought a hint of nostalgia to the trip, reports AP.
"I am an old man," he said. "I don't know how much time the Lord will grant me."
"At least one more time, I am getting to see my homeland," Benedict said.
But the visit carries more than nostalgic meaning for Benedict, posing instead one of the prime challenges he has taken on in his 16-month papacy combating secular trends in the West.
He took this up immediately upon arrival, paying tribute to Bavaria's Catholic tradition over the centuries but acknowledging that "today's social context is in many ways different from that of the past."