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August 12, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 44

John L. Allen Jr.


World Youth Day: Benedict XVI on the road; WYD’s importance;
ecumenical and interfaith opportunities: Protestant; Jewish; Muslim


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Next week the curtain rises in Cologne, Germany, on the biggest event of the Catholic summer, as well as the most important road test to date of Benedict XVI’s papacy.

World Youth Day begins August 15 with Marian celebrations in local parishes, though Benedict XVI doesn’t arrive until Thursday, August 18. The weeklong festival of Catholic youth, instituted by Pope John Paul II and known affectionately as the “Catholic Woodstock,” closes with a papal Mass on Sunday, August 21.

The drama of the pope’s first foreign voyage is not, however, just about the encounter with youth, or the sense of anticipation that comes with a new pope doing things for the first time. The trip also features important sessions with both Jews and Muslims, representatives of the Catholic Church’s most important inter-religious relationships, and both groups that have expressed a degree of ambivalence about the new pope and his policies.

Over these four days in August, therefore, the world will be watching for:

  • Turnout and mood, especially at the August 21 concluding Mass on the Marienfeld plain outside Cologne, as an indicator of Benedict XVI’s capacity to recapture John Paul II’s magic with youth. Organizers have estimated some 800,000, which would be an impressive accomplishment in ultra-secular Germany;
  • The key themes Benedict will strike in his public addresses, perhaps the most revealing indicator to date of the big ideas of his pontificate;
  • The pope’s ecumenical message, given that his native Germany is the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, and is today roughly evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants;
  • The new pope’s reception in Germany, home of the most successful liberal Catholic reform movement of the modern era, the “We Are Church” movement, which garnered 2.5 million signatures in the mid-1990s for a petition demanding liberalization of church teaching in areas such as sexuality, women's issues, and the selection of bishops;
  • The pope’s message at the Cologne synagogue, against the backdrop of sharp Jewish/Catholic debates over the role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust, and equally vexed Israeli/Vatican exchanges over terrorism as well as negotiations concerning the legal status of church-run institutions in Israel;
  • The pope’s message in his August 20 session with Muslims, who number some 3 million in Germany, the vast majority of whom are Turkish. Some observers expect Benedict XVI to take a tougher approach to Islam than his immediate predecessor, beginning with the question of Turkey’s candidacy to join the European Union, a move that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger opposed prior to his election as pope.
    Given all this subtext, Benedict XVI’s four-day homecoming to Germany will offer important clues as to both the content and the style of this new papacy, which reached the 100th-day mark on July 27.
* * *
World Youth Day was, in a way, the part John Paul II was born to play. From his pastoral encounters with married couples and students as a young bishop in Poland, to his appreciation for popular culture as a way of shaping hearts and minds, John Paul was a pope for youth. To take but one example, he didn’t sneer at rock-and-roll, but challenged it to carry a message of moral purpose; U2 lead singer Bono once dubbed him “history’s first funky pontiff.”

Precursors of World Youth Day date to 1983. The United Nations declared 1985 an “International Year of Youth,” and a youth gathering with the pope was organized in Rome for Palm Sunday. More than 250,000 turned out.

Afterwards, the pope said that he wanted a regular meeting with youth on Palm Sunday to be coordinated by the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Those sessions eventually grew into World Youth Day, with the first event under that title celebrated in Rome in 1986. In subsequent years, World Youth Day has alternated between a massive international gathering with the pope, and local celebrations on Palm Sunday scattered across the globe. (This is why the 2005 edition is officially labeled as the 20th World Youth Day).

World Youth Days with the pope have been held in Buenos Aires, Santiago di Compostela, Czestochowa, Denver, Manila, Paris, Rome, and Toronto. The Manila edition featured one of the largest crowds in human history, a reported four million people for the final Mass.

The Cologne World Youth Day was, at least in part, the brainchild of Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne. When John Paul II was hospitalized in March, Meisner urged him to keep the appointment in Cologne, stressing to the ailing pope, who at the time was struggling to speak, that his physical presence would be the most eloquent possible homily. Meisner later urged his old friend, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to confirm his participation after his election as Benedict XVI.

On April 20, the morning after his election, Benedict XVI came through: “If it is God’s will, I will meet the Youth in Cologne at the next World Youth Day,” he said.

Cologne’s cathedral is home to the relics of the Magi, the legendary “three wise men” of the infancy narrative. The theme for World Youth Day 2005, drawn from the account of the Magi in the New Testament, is “Come, let us adore him.”

The official patron saints of World Youth Day are St Boniface, the apostle of Germany, the Saints of Cologne, and in particular Ursula, Albert the Great, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Blessed Adolph Kolping.

On a more practical note, corporate sponsors include DHL, Audi, Volkswagen, Bayer, Nestle, Deutsche Telekom, Shell and Cisco Systems. The total cost of the event is estimated at 100 million Euros, which will be offset by participant fees, plus 12 million Euros from the state, a 27 million Euro loan from 27 German dioceses, sponsor contributions, a lottery, the sale of WYD articles, and donations. * * *
No one expects that Benedict XVI will strike quite the same charismatic chord with young people that John Paul II mastered. There will likely be no “woo, woo,” at the microphone, no sing-alongs, no impromptu jokes or fits of fancy. Benedict is a more restrained, less theatrical figure than his predecessor, determined to place the focus on the message rather than the man.

Why is World Youth Day important?

First, in many parts of the world, including the developed West, the Catholic Church faces a severe vocations crisis. In 1970, the Catholic Church had one priest for every 1,000 Catholics in the world; in 2000, the ratio was one priest for every 2,500 Catholics. (While the number of priests actually increased slightly from 1961 to 2001, it did not keep pace with the rise in Catholic population.

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The worst-hit area was Europe; the number of secular and religious clergy in Europe dropped from 241,379 in 1976 to 217,275 in 1995.) This is not just a management or staffing issue, but one that cuts to the core of the Catholic Church’s capacity to make the sacraments available to the faithful. The ability to inspire new vocations to the priesthood, therefore, has to rank among the most important tasks of any bishop, and a fortiori, of the pope. World Youth Day is a privileged forum for “recruiting.” Around the world today, one can find seminarians and newly ordained priests who report that their first inkling of a vocation came as part of the World Youth Day experience. Many report that it was the invitation issued by John Paul II, coupled with admiration of his example, which caused the notion to blossom. To date, these vocations have not offset the long-term trends, but the situation would be worse without them.

Second, World Youth Day is the largest regular gathering of Catholics in the world, and therefore offers the pope a critically important opportunity to exercise his “bully pulpit.” Any event that involves a million people will draw media attention, and the theatre of a high papal Mass offers the global press irresistible imagery. All of this means that when Benedict XVI speaks in Cologne, the world will be listening in a way it generally doesn’t to papal addresses. (Some 4,000 journalists are already accredited for the event). It’s an “at-bat” for the pope as a global communicator, and whether he strikes out or knocks it out of the park will make a difference in the Catholic Church’s capacity to “evangelize,” meaning to spread its message.

Third, youth are critical to a pope’s capacity to lift the church out of the ideological ruts of a given era. Adults tend to become locked in debates over a limited set of issues, recycling those arguments in endless combinations. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, Jesuits and Dominicans clashed over competing theories of grace; in the 19th century, Catholic democrats and Catholic traditionalists locked horns over the “Roman question”; today, “liberals” and “conservatives” go at one another over sexuality, dissent, and the authority of the pope. Sometimes resolution of these debates is less a matter of victory for one side, than the capacity to see the entire matter in a new light. That’s what young Catholics have to offer – a fresh perspective, not defined by the categories of the past. In order for that to work, young people have to be willing to invest their energy and creativity in the church. World Youth Day has the capacity to awaken such passion and commitment.

If Benedict XVI wants to challenge the dictatorship of relativism in the West, he’s going to need motivated, well-formed youth, and there’s no place like World Youth Day to assemble his team. The extent to which Benedict XVI succeeds in connecting with the youth who assemble to hear him in Cologne, therefore, should tell us a great deal about where his pontificate is headed. * * *
The Protestant/Catholic divide in Germany lends an obvious ecumenical subtext to Benedict XVI’s trip.

As a German theologian, and a convinced Augustinian, Joseph Ratzinger has long admired the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. In 1965, commenting on the document Gaudium et Spes from the final session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Ratzinger criticized the text for relying too much on the optimism of French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, and not enough on Luther’s consciousness of the Cross and of sin. (Note that Ratzinger was complaining that a Catholic document neglected the father of the Protestant Reformation; that alone says something about his ecumenical attitudes).

Later, Ratzinger played a key role in rescuing an agreement with the Lutheran World Federation on the doctrine of justification. It was announced to much fanfare in June 1998, then seemingly unraveled, and rolled out again in June 1999. The heart of the agreement was this sentence: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”

When the agreement seemed to founder, German media reported that Ratzinger had torpedoed it. On July 14, 1998, Ratzinger published a letter in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine calling those reports a “smooth lie.” He said that to scuttle the dialogue would be to “deny myself.” On November 3, 1998, a special ad hoc working group met at the home of Ratzinger’s brother Georg in Regensburg, Bavaria, to get the agreement back on track. Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hanselmann convened the group, which consisted of Hanselmann, Ratzinger, Catholic theologian Heinz Schuette and Lutheran theologian Joachim Track.

Given this background, coupled with the strong ecumenical commitment that has so far characterized Benedict’s papacy, one would expect outreach during his German swing. The ecumenical meeting on the pope’s program Friday evening at the archbishop’s palace offers the ideal setting.

On the vexed issue of inter-communion between Catholics and Protestants, however, it would be naďve to expect a sea change in Cologne.

The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, issued under Ratzinger’s authority as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, states that, “Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion is not possible for the Catholic Church.”

This explains why Catholics can’t take communion from a Protestant minister – from the Catholic point of view, that minister is not a properly ordained priest, and hence the communion is not a valid Eucharist.

On the other end, Protestants are generally not invited to the Catholic Eucharist because, again from the Catholic point of view, receiving the Eucharist implies unity in faith, and Catholics and Protestants have different beliefs about the Eucharist. (The 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, lays out the conditions for individual exceptions). * * *
Under the shadow of the Reformation, German Catholicism has long had an ambivalent, cranky attitude with respect to Roman authority.

That “away from Rome” thrust is not just a fossil of the past. In 1995, in Austria, the “We Are Church” movement was born when a high school religion teacher named Thomas Plankensteiner and a couple of colleagues went on television to announce their frustration with the church’s handling of a sexual abuse scandal involving the then-cardinal of Vienna, Hans Hermann Gröer. The movement leapt quickly to Germany, where a petition demanding reform in the church garnered an astonishing 2.5 million signatures.

Though the movement has lost a good deal of steam in the years since, it’s still around, ensuring that critical voices will be heard during the pope’s German swing.

For example, We Are Church is sponsoring a gathering called “World Youth Day 4 All,” which they say will address “questions and highly controversial youth issues that are relevant to young people – issues that are excluded from the Catholic World Youth Day that is mainly focused on the pope and the bishops.” Press materials say that “numerous” young people from Europe, Africa and the Americas will take part.

This will be interesting to watch, because the normal critique of Catholic reform movements is that they’re the hobby horse of aging ‘60’s-era radicals. If there are large numbers of young people at these events, it might challenge that impression; if the turnout is limited, it will reinforce it.

The “We Are Church” folks plan to set up shop in an Old Catholic parish in the center of Cologne from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm each day from August 16 through 19. They will also hold press conferences on August 9, 15 and 17. * * *
Since Vatican II, the central inter-religious relationship for the Catholic Church has been with Judaism. This is not merely because Christianity was born within Judaism, or because of the oft-troubled history between the two faiths. Open wounds in the relationship remain today. Bitter disputes between some Christians and Jews over the role of the Catholic Church during the Second World War, and especially the alleged “silence” of Pope Pius XII concerning the Holocaust, are still unresolved.

Moreover, Catholic/Jewish ties inevitably are influenced by the diplomatic relationship between the State of Israel and the Holy See. Recent days have seen another rift between the two, as Israel accused Benedict XVI of overlooking anti-Israeli terrorism, and the Vatican in turn accused Israel of both violations of international law in its reprisals, as well as sticking its nose in Vatican business. Negotiations that have dragged on for 11 years concerning the legal and financial status of church-run institutions in Israel also generate frustration and recrimination on both sides. Israeli politicians and diplomats are frequently leery of the Vatican’s interventions in the Middle East, fearing that it tilts towards the Palestinians because the vast majority of Christians in the region are Arabs.

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All of this will be in the air when Benedict XVI visits the Cologne synagogue for a prayer service on Friday, August 19.

The visit will mark only the second time since the age of Peter that a pope has entered a synagogue. (The first was John Paul’s visit to the Rome synagogue in 1986). The Jewish community in Cologne is the oldest in Europe north of the Alps, and at the time of Hitler's rise to power in 1933 numbered some 20,000 people. Roughly 11,000 Jews from Cologne perished during the Holocaust, and the rest fled to other countries. The community was rebuilt after the Second World War, and today numbers 4,000 members.

Benedict XVI brings to this encounter a lifetime of reflection on Christianity’s relationship with Judaism, and the role of Judaism in salvation history.

Echoing both Nostra Aetate and Pope John Paul II’s outreach to Judaism, Joseph Ratzinger has long rejected stereotypes about Jews as the villains in the death of Jesus. In a 1994 address in Jerusalem, he quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “All sinners were the authors of Christ’s passion.” In that same Jerusalem address, delivered at a first-ever International Jewish-Christian Conference on Modern Social and Scientific Challenges, Ratzinger urged understanding between Jews and Christians: “After Auschwitz, the mission of reconciliation and acceptance permits no deferral.” He closed with a childhood insight. “I could not understand how some people wanted to derive a condemnation of Jews from the death of Jesus, because the following thought had penetrated my soul as something profoundly consoling: Jesus’ blood raises no calls for retaliation but calls all to reconciliation.”

Still, Ratzinger has never ducked a contentious point in Christian/Jewish dialogue – whether Christians should renounce efforts to convert Jews. He suggested in a 1987 interview with the Italian newspaper Il Sabato that Jews could be fully true to their heritage only by becoming Christian: “The Pope has offered respect, but also a theological line. This always implies our union with the faith of Abraham, but also the reality of Jesus Christ, in which the faith of Abraham finds its fulfillment,” he said. Ratzinger referred to Edith Stein, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, became a Carmelite nun, and was murdered by the Nazis. “Finding faith in Christ, she entered into the full inheritance of Abraham,” Ratzinger said. “She turned in her Jewish heritage to have a new and diverse heritage. But in entering into unity with Christ, she entered into the very heart of Judaism.”

There is little question about Ratzinger’s personal respect for Jews, or his opposition to anti-Semitism. He has recalled seeing a slogan painted on Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber’s residence in Munich in November 1938: “After the Jew, the Jew-lover.” Faulhaber had resisted the efforts of Alfred Rosenberg and others to purge Christianity of its Jewish elements. For Ratzinger, that phrase on the cardinal’s wall summed up where the church stood. In another context, Ratzinger was once asked by a Jewish leader if the existence of the state of Israel had any theological significance for Catholics as it does for Jews. His response: “If it has significance for you, it must have significance for us.”

Moreover, Benedict XVI is aware that as a German pope who briefly, albeit involuntarily, was enrolled in the Hitler Youth, and who later served in the German army, his visit to a German synagogue has special resonance.

That sense of history was clear on May 18, when Benedict XVI watched a screening of a movie in Rome on the life of John Paul II that included scenes of Nazi repression of Jews and Poles. At the end, he stood and applauded.

He called the work a “moving film with very strong emotional references to the repression of the Polish people and the genocide of the Jews.”

“One is talking about atrocious crimes that demonstrate all the evil contained in the Nazi ideology,” Benedict said.
He said he saw a providential design in the fact that a Polish pope was succeeded by a German one.

“Both popes in their youth – both on different sides and in different situations – were forced to experience the barbarity of the Second World War,” Benedict told the audience.

It’s that sensitivity the world will be waiting to hear in Cologne. * * *
Though not quite packing the same historical punch, the meeting with Muslims on August 20 arguably has at least the same political and theological significance as the encounter with Jews the day before.

As of 2004, there were roughly 3.45 million Muslims in Germany, making it one of the countries in Europe with the highest percentage of Muslim immigrants. Many arrived as a result of work-related migrations in the 1960s and political upheavals in the 1970s, so by now the Muslim community in Germany is well established, including families with two or three generations in the country. The rate of adult conversion is low; only about 12,000 Muslims in the country are ethnically German. The overwhelming majority of German Muslims are from Turkey, and most are Sunnis.

According to a 2004 study by Bielefeld University, some Germans are not entirely comfortable with the Muslim presence in the country. Some 60 percent of Germans, according to the study, believe their country is “too foreign.” Seventy percent of the Germans surveyed said that Muslims do not fit in with Western society, and German society in particular. That figure is up from 55 percent who felt uncomfortable with Muslims two years ago. According to the authors of the study, the current national unemployment rate of 10.5 percent, with rates much higher in the former East Germany, explains some of this resentment.
Benedict XVI will no doubt want to strike a note of tolerance and dialogue in his August 20 session with Muslim leaders at the archbishop’s palace. Some Muslim leaders greeted the election of Benedict XVI with apprehension, wondering if his interest in Judaism would mean correspondingly less attention to Islam. The pope will also want to assure Muslims that Christian/Islamic relations will be a high priority.

Benedict has already tried to strike reassuring notes with regard to Muslims, aware of the potential for a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. When an aide recently termed the July 7 London bombings “anti-Christian,” Benedict was quick to say that he didn’t see it that way – the intent, he said, was “much more general.”

At the same time, Joseph Ratzinger has long been associated with a somewhat “hawkish” approach to Islam, especially on the issue of reciprocity – religious freedom for Christians and other religious minorities in majority Islamic states. If the Saudi Arabian government can spend $65 million to finance the construction of a sprawling mosque in Rome, for example, then perhaps Christians ought to be able to legally build churches in Saudi Arabia, something that is presently barred by law. Observers will be listening attentively for any hints of a somewhat stronger line from the pope on this issue.

A specific concern for Germany’s Turkish community will be any comment from Benedict XVI on the question of Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union, something Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had opposed. In an interview last August with the French paper Le Figaro, Ratzinger said: “Throughout history Turkey has always represented a different continent, always in contrast with Europe.” He warned that taking Turkey into Europe would lead to a flattening out of cultural characteristics on both sides. “It would be a mistake to make the two continents the same, it would mean losing the richness of their differences and giving up culture in return for advantages in the economic field,” he said.

It’s not yet clear if that private view will become the official position of the Holy See on Benedict XVI’s watch. This meeting with a predominantly Turkish community in Europe would offer an ideal opportunity for a clarification. * * *
The official web site for World Youth Day can be found here:

An independent news service about World Youth Day, staffed by freelance journalists, can be found here:

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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