Picking up where John Paul II left off
NCR Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr. is in Cologne, Germany. Beginning today, NCRonline.org will post daily reports from World Youth Day. Bookmark this page or check back with NCRonline.org to read more coverage of this international Catholic event.
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Picking up where John Paul II -- the pope he referred to today as "unforgettable" -- left off, Benedict XVI accented the Christian roots of Europe on day one of his first trip outside Italy, to his homeland in ultra-secularized Germany.
"Here we find a rich cultural and spiritual heritage which even today, in the heart of Europe, testifies to the fruitfulness of the Christian faith and tradition," Benedict XVI said during a welcoming ceremony at the Bonn-Cologne airport.
Appropriately enough, the airport is named for Konrad Adeneur, the legendary German politician who was one of the founders of the European Union, and a devout Catholic.
In recent years, however, the historical relationship between secular Europe and Christian Europe has been something of a love-hate affair.
John Paul II waged a long, and ultimately ambiguous, effort to stir the Christian memory of Europe over his almost 27-year pontificate. While he brought new visibility and energy to the church, in the end he failed to persuade the European Union to even mention God in the preamble to its new constitution.
|Read more NCR coverage of World Youth Day|
Report #4: Do-it-yourself religion 'cannot ultimately help us,' pope tells youth. Posted Aug. 21, 12:23 p.m.
Correspondent's Notebook #4: WYD 'rehabilitates' Joseph Ratzinger; Pope and teacher; Meeting with seminarians; Diversity among youth; WYD liturgical styles; Some ripples of dissent. Posted Aug. 21, 12:23 p.m.
Report #3: Benedict uses meeting with Muslims to condemn terrorism. Posted Aug. 20, 12:54 p.m. Updated at 4:56 p.m.
Correspondent's Notebook #3: Cardinal Pell sums up youth day message; Aussies prepare for 2008; Sant'Egidio community in Cologne; Contemplating WYD without a pope; Synagogue visit reaction. Posted Aug. 20, 12:54 p.m.
Report #2: Benedict acknowledges progress, challenges in Catholic-Jewish relations; Also meets with Catholic seminarians, German Protestants. Posted Aug. 19, 12:19 p.m.
Correspondent's Notebook #2: The pope at the synagogue; Assessing Benedict so far; The Magi pilgrims; On the papal plane; Some snags in logistics. Posted Aug. 19, 12:19 p.m.
Report #1: Picking up where John Paul II left off. Posted Aug. 18, 2:35 p.m.
Correspondent's Notebook #1: Who attends World Youth Day?; Benedict arrives; Condolences to Taizé; WYD trivia and Americans in Cologne; Visa problems; Security issues; Comic relief. Posted Aug. 18, 2:35 p.m.
Benedict XVI is, like John Paul, whom he referred to variously as "great" and "unforgettable," determined not to allow the church to go gently into that good night.
The pope lauded the region and diocese of Cologne as "great witnesses to Christian civilization," and said they had "helped Europe to grow from Christian roots."
The Cologne archdiocese, which numbers 2.2 million Catholics and 767 parishes is considered among the largest and richest in the Catholic world.
Benedict's efforts to recall Europe to Christian faith and practice may face special challenges in his native Germany, where the bishops' conference estimates practicing Catholics at 18 percent of the 27 million Catholics in the country, and unofficial estimates put that level much lower. In recent years, the number of baptized Catholics who have officially left the church in order to avoid paying the mandatory kirchensteuer, or "church tax," has risen to such levels that the bishops' conference has warned of serious financial shortfalls.
Historically, those tax receipts have allowed the Catholic church in Germany to operate a vast network of institutions, including schools, hospitals, clinics, social-welfare agencies, day-care centers, and charitable organizations such as Caritas, Missio, and Adveniat. As a result, the church has been the second largest employer in the country.
Benedict XVI has sometimes criticized this massive bureaucracy for being self-perpetuating, even after its original purpose has been outlived.
Yet among some of the American delegates, there was evidence Thursday that Benedict XVI's call to a full-bodied, unapologetic version of Catholicism resonated.
"As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he was like the church's bulldog," said Pedro Russell, a 21-year-old from Bitteroot Valley, Montana, who cuts quite a figure -- tall, with bright green hair, and a rosary around his neck.
"He was puttin' the smack-down on heresy," Russell said. "Personally, I'm looking forward to that. There was a lot of slightly misguided teachings that I grew up with. Knowing that there's somebody up there who's made his entire cardinal's career out of straightening out those heresies and defending the true, solid teachings of the church is something I am very, very excited about for the youth. He'll be able to deliver a strict, simple answer that will lead them to deeper life.
As he spoke, Kelsey McDougall, 17, also from Bitteroot Valley, affirmed her friend: "There you go," she said.
In his three addresses on Thursday -- one delivered at the airport, one to a group of youth along the Rhine River whom Benedict addressed from a boat, and one at the Cologne cathedral -- Benedict also touched on other by-now characteristic themes of his papacy.
For one thing, the pope stressed his desire for dialogue with the members of other Christian churches and other religions.
Referring to his upcoming Friday meeting with Jews and his Saturday session with Muslims, Benedict said "these meetings are important steps along the journey of dialogue and cooperation in our shared commitment to building a more just and fraternal future, a future which is more truly human."
Benedict also emphasized evangelization, or the missionary drive to win new followers for the faith. In his address to youth on the banks of the Rhine, for example, he expressed a special welcome to those who have come from the East -- a not-so-subtle reference, among other things, to a sizeable contingent from China attending World Youth Day.
(CNS/Bob Roller)World Youth Day pilgrims cross the Rhine River in Cologne, Germany, Aug. 17.
"You are the representatives of so many of our brothers and sisters who are waiting," the pope said, "without realizing it, for the star to rise in their skies and lead them, to Christ, Light of the Nations, in whom they will find the fullest response to their hearts' deepest desires."
Benedict XVI also placed a strong accent on the Eucharist, in this "Year of the Eucharist" declared by John Paul II.
"In every Mass the liturgy of the Word introduces us to our participation in the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ and hence introduces us to the Eucharistic Meal, to union with Christ. … Enlightened by the Word, it is in Bethlehem -- the 'House of Bread' -- that we can always encounter the inconceivable greatness of a God who humbled himself even to appearing in a manger, to giving himself as food on the altar."
Given the context of World Youth Day, Benedict XVI issued a special call to youth.
"I encourage you to commit yourself without reserve to serving Christ, whatever the cost," the pope said.
At the same time, he said he does not regard his encounter with youth as a one-way exchange.
"I am happy to be with them, to confirm their faith and to enliven their hope," he said, "At the same time, I am sure that I will also receive something from them, especially from their enthusiasm, their sensitivity and their readiness to face the challenges of the future."
At several points, Benedict seemed almost defensive about the attitudes that some young people may bring to the Catholic church, insisting that faith in Christ does not imply a joyless following of rules.
"Be completely convinced of this," he said. "Christ takes from you nothing that is beautiful and great, but brings everything to perfection for the glory of God, the happiness of men and women, and the salvation of the world."
Though Ratzinger grew up not in the Rhineland, in the center of Germany, but in Bavaria in the Catholic south, there were nevertheless a few biographical touches to the visit. The pope recalled his years teaching at the nearby University of Bonn during the early years of his career as a theologian.
In the evening, Benedict made a brief visit to the tombs of two former cardinals of Cologne, Joseph Frings and Joseph Höffner. It was Frings who asked a young Joseph Ratzinger to serve as his theological advisor during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
In one of the great ironies of recent Catholic history, Ratzinger was the ghostwriter of a famous speech Frings delivered on the floor of the council on November 8, 1963, condemning the Vatican's doctrinal office as a "source of scandal" to the world. Ratzinger would later be tapped by John Paul II to head that same office, by then known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
World Youth Day, a regular gathering of Catholic youth from around the world known affectionately as the "Catholic Woodstock," was instituted by John Paul II in 1986. Because John Paul announced the Cologne event in 2002 and selected its theme, this installment has been labeled the "World Youth Day of Two Popes."
Somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million young people are expected to join Benedict XVI for the Saturday evening vigil and the Sunday Mass at Marienfeld, a former open-pit mine on the outskirts of Cologne. Participants come from 193 nations, a World Youth Day record.
Benedict XVI is expected to announce on Sunday that the next World Youth Day will be held in Sydney, Australia, in 2008.
The $64,000 question about World Youth Day has always been whether over the long run, it changes the faith and practice of the young people who take part. On that score, it seems, the jury may still be out.
NCR asked Tim Loehmann, 16, from Cleveland, Ohio, if he thought this experience would make him a more devout Catholic.
"I think it could, in a way," he said. "I'm not really sure."
"It's not over yet."
Editor's Note: Also read Allen's Correspondent's Notebook.
August 18, 2005, National Catholic Reporter