World Youth Day Coverage
Posted Sunday, August 21, 2005 at 12:23 p.m. CDT

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Coverage of World Youth Day exclusively by NCR

Correspondent's Notebook #4:
WYD 'rehabilitates' Joseph Ratzinger; Pope and teacher; Meeting with seminarians; Diversity among youth; WYD liturgical styles; Some ripples of dissent

NCR Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr. is in Cologne, Germany. will post daily reports from World Youth Day through Aug. 21. Bookmark this page or check back with to read more coverage of this international Catholic event.

John L. Allen Jr.


Cologne, Germany

In talking on background to German organizers of the Cologne World Youth Day, it's clear that there was a subsidiary agenda here, beyond confirming hundreds of thousands of young people in their Catholic faith, or staging important encounters between the pope and Jews or Muslims -- "rehabilitating," so to speak, Joseph Ratzinger in the court of German public opinion.

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For better or worse, the German hierarchy is aware that in some circles in Germany, including some within the German Catholic church, Ratzinger has long loomed as a sort of Darth Vader figure. He has been variously seen as stern, aloof, authoritarian and pessimistic. It doesn't help that Ratzinger has been in Rome for almost 24 years, so that people in his homeland know him largely through newspaper headlines and TV sound-bites.

What the organizers wanted to do was to present to the German public Joseph Ratzinger the private man -- gracious, humble, kind and affectionate. To a great extent, they seemed to have succeeded. Images of Benedict XVI, smiling and waving, radiating hope and optimism, reaching out to Protestants and followers of other religions, have appeared on the front page of countless German papers, and the same images have led evening newscasts.

None of this means, of course, that Benedict XVI has abandoned the firm convictions that have made him something of a polarizing figure.

This came across especially clearly in his Sunday address to the German bishops, where, after listing several points of pride in German Catholicism, Benedict moved on to address its defects.

"On the face of this [German] church there are also wrinkles, shadows that obscure her splendor," the pope said. "Secularism and dechristianization continue to advance. The influence of Catholic ethics and morals is in constant decline. Many people abandon the church or, if they remain, they accept only a part of Catholic teaching. The religious situation in the East is particularly worrying, since the majority of the population is unbaptized and has no contact with the church," the pope said.

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.
  • Germany today, Benedict summed up, is once again "mission territory."

    Against this backdrop, the pope called for German Catholics to be "consistent, united and courageous."

    "There can be no false compromise, no watering down of the gospel," he said.

    Yet for the most part, Benedict came across as anything but a scold. He reached his rhetorical peak in his homily at the concluding Sunday Mass, offering an image of the Eucharist as "inducing nuclear fission into the very heart of being -- the victory of love over hatred, the victory of love over death."

    Hearing such words from Benedict XVI, and watching the large and enthusiastic crowds respond to him, no doubt many Germans have been given some food for thought about a man they thought they knew.

    Of course, the generally positive coverage will not last long after the papal plane takes off. The next time Pope Benedict censures a theologian or cracks down on a pastoral practice, the old stereotypes will resurface. But at least in the short term, the organizers here seem to feel they've succeeded in knocking down some walls of skepticism and hostility -- and if so, that by itself would represent no small accomplishment.

    * * *

    One way in which Benedict XVI showed a different side of himself while in Germany was a frank acknowledgement that, despite his profound faith in the Catholic church as the privileged place to meet Christ, it is also deeply human and imperfect.

    "There is much that could be criticized in the church," he told the youth during the Saturday evening vigil.

    "We know this and the Lord himself told us so: it is a net with good fish and bad fish, a field with wheat and darnel," he said. "Pope John Paul II, as well as revealing the true face of the church in the many saints that he canonized, also asked pardon for the wrong that was done in the course of history through the words and deeds of members of the church. In this way he showed us our own true image and urged us to take our place, with all our faults and weaknesses, in the procession of the saints that began with the Magi from the East."

    "It is actually consoling to realize that there is darnel in the church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners," he said.

    Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant'Egidio Community, told me he especially liked this image.

    "This illustrates the tolerance of God, which is always much greater than the tolerance of human beings," Riccardi said.

    * * *

    Given how composed and energetic Benedict XVI has seemed during these four days, it's easy to forget that he is a 78-year-old man, for whom any sort of travel, let alone the high-energy World Youth Day, has to be enormously taxing.

    As one indication of the way organizers are trying to protect the pope's stamina, John Paul II's first trip to Germany was also a four-day affair, November 15-19, 1980. Over that course of time, he gave a total of 29 speeches; Benedict XVI, by way of contrast, gave 12. Obviously, a man of 78 cannot keep up the same pace that someone who, at that stage, was a mere 60 could maintain.

    Further, despite the fact that he invoked John Paul II in virtually every address in Cologne, it's clear that Benedict feels no pressure to be a clone of John Paul II. Hence, he does not intend to mimic his predecessor's profile as a human dynamo.

    One other point, which may or may not be indicative of something. When Benedict XVI announced Sydney, Australia, as the site of the next World Youth Day in 2008, he did not add a characteristic John Paul II touch: Arrivederci a Sydney! ("See you at Sydney!") It may simply be another example of Benedict XVI doing things his own way, but it may also signal that the pope is not yet committed to making the trip -- or simply an honest recognition that no one at this stage knows whether, at 81, he'll be capable of doing so.

    * * *

    Despite the fact that professional pedagogues spend a lot of time worrying about whether material is "age-appropriate" or "relevant," somewhere along the line most people have had a teacher who stands out precisely because she or he refused to assume that young people are incapable of adult thought. They acted as if young people ought to be perfectly equipped to read Flaubert, or to do advanced calculus, or to master organic chemistry, and that faith often pushed their students beyond mediocrity.

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    These may not, by and large, be the teachers upon whom girls develop crushes, or that guys want to hang around with after school. They may not "bring down the house" at pep rallies or talent shows. But they generate respect, and in the end, deep affection, even if it's a more subdued and thoughtful sort of emotion. Such teachers pay young people the compliment of not patronizing them.

    After the 20th World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI seems to be emerging as that kind of pope.

    In a world of rapid-fire, MTV-style cutaways in television programs and movies, driven by the assumption that young people have limited attention spans and thus little capacity for following a line of thought, Pope Benedict made no apologies Sunday morning for veering into a lengthy exegesis of the Greek word proskynesis and the Latin adoratio. (He later tossed in a Hebrew term, beracha, to boot). He used words such as "positivism" and "transmute" without bothering to explain them, as if all one million young people from 197 countries standing in the Marienfeld plain Sunday morning ought to have scored 700 or better on the SAT verbal.

    It's quite likely that some portions of his Sunday morning homily will have sailed over the heads of part of his audience, especially since the majority heard most of it through translation, but that's not quite the point. Many will come away inspired because this man, whom most of the World Youth Day participants regard as brilliant and holy, didn't water his thinking down. He didn't act as if he was saving his best stuff for someone else -- he assumed these young people were capable of meaty content.

    It was already clear that Benedict XVI is not a pep rally kind of pope, and that was obvious in Cologne. During the opening prayer of the Saturday night vigil, when the crowd began to cheer as he read an opening prayer, he smiled and then gestured that he wanted them to quiet down. He never ad-libbed, never broke into song, never put on a funny hat. There was never the kind of spontaneous, "John Paul II loves you too!" kind of outburst that brought the house down in previous World Youth Days.

    Benedict smiled, waved, and repeatedly thanked the youth for coming. The crowds seemed to genuinely like him, even if they tended to react to him like a respected teacher rather than a surrogate father, or grandfather, which is the relationship many Catholic youth felt to John Paul II.

    What Benedict offered in his three major addresses -- the opening greeting on Thursday afternoon delivered from a boat on the Rhine, and the two homilies Saturday night and Sunday morning -- was instead some 35,000 words of teaching, moral exhortation and spiritual challenge.

    Over the long run, it's an open question whether that teaching will transform the lives of the youth who came to Cologne, or whether it will reawaken the Christian roots of Europe, just as one can ask whether the charisma and moral heroism of John Paul II did so.

    But, with at least some of the roughly one million young people in attendance at the concluding Mass, Benedict probably at least got them thinking.

    * * *

    When Benedict XVI decided to add a meeting with seminarians on Friday afternoon, it raised the eyebrows of some longtime organizers of World Youth Days. Although there are priests, brothers, deacons and religious women around the world who say that the first inklings of a vocation came to them at World Youth Day, organizers have always been concerned about overplaying this dimension of the event.

    The core purpose of World Youth Day, they say, is to evangelize typical, meat-and-potatoes Catholic youth, not to be a "farm team" for future vocations to the priesthood and religious life. What they don't want, they say, is for young people to react to the idea of going to World Youth Day by saying, "I'm not really interested in being a priest or nun, so it's not for me."

    Yet Benedict XVI has shown no such ambivalence.

    "I am very pleased to have this opportunity to be with you. I had asked that the program of these days in Cologne should include a special meeting with young seminarians, so that the vocational dimension which is always a part of World Youth Day would be even more clearly and strongly evident," he said.

    He was even clearer in his address to the German bishops.

    He called World Youth Day "a laboratory of vocations, because in the course of these days the Lord will not have failed to make his call heard in the hearts of many young people."

    Benedict linked this dimension of the event to the decline in numbers of priests, especially in Germany.

    "In the light of the shortage of priests and religious, which is reaching dramatic proportions here in Germany, I encourage you, dear brothers, to promote the pastoral care of vocations with renewed vigor, in order to reach parishes, educational centers and families," he said.

    There seems little doubt, therefore, that on Benedict XVI's watch, the "recruiting" element of future World Youth Days will be increasingly in the foreground.

    * * *

    One of the charming things about World Youth Day is that it brings together youth not merely from a variety of cultures and linguistic groups, but from a wide spectrum of "religiosity" as well.

    Consider, for example, these contrasting examples of reactions to a very basic question I asked a number of pilgrims throughout the four days I was here: What do they think of the new pope?

    "He's old," said Tim Loehmann, 16, from Cleveland, Ohio. Loehmann is a junior at Benedictine High School.

    I pressed for more.

    "I think he's a good guy. I think he was the right choice," Loehmann said. "The priests told us they would like to see him get elected. They thought he was a good choice, so I back that."

    Does Loehmann know why the priests he referred to wanted this man to be elected pope?

    "Yeah, but I don't remember," he said.

    Contrast that with this response from Sean Melancon, 19, of Las Vegas, Nevada.

    "I love the pope. Just being the pope, there's something that makes you love him. But this pope is incredible. Firstly, he's very orthodox. He's a theologian. He's written works that are so powerful. Also, I saw him in Rome while we were there for one of the Wednesday audiences, and he spoke to everyone in their own language. It was so amazing, so incredible."

    "He's very humble," Melancon said.

    "Pope John Paul II asked that whoever was elected pope not refuse it. I think that says something … the people who become pope, like Benedict XVI, are not looking for self-glory. It's about the church. They're the servants of the servants. I think that's what draws the attention of so many youth. They realize that he's here for us."

    For a kind of via media, here's the view of Kelsey McDougall, 17, from Bitteroot Valley, Montana. I asked her the same question: What are her impressions of the pope?

    "I thought, well, he's … I don't know what to think of him, really," she said. "He's the pope, the leader of our church. It's kind of nice to see him, of course at a distance. With Pope John Paul II, I never really saw him in real life, I always saw him on TV. Being here in Germany and being a witness to people from all over the world, including the pope, it's remarkable."

    This in a nutshell captures the pastoral challenge facing the planners of World Youth Day, up to and including the pope -- how to "pitch" the event in such a way that it holds the interest of well-informed, motivated Catholics such as Melancon, without leaving more novice participants such as Loehmann behind.

    Another thing that becomes clear in talking to American youth is that, at least for them, the international dimension of World Youth Day is terribly important. For many American youth, sometimes monolingual and unaccustomed to global travel, this is their first living encounter with the idea of Roman Catholicism as a global family of faith.

    "I guess it's the witnessing in faith of how much faith the youth have," McDougall said. "To me, it's overpowering. It really hits me emotionally, because I thank God every day for how strong our faith is in the Catholic church, and how many people are pumped up about spiritual concerns."

    "I think personally World Youth Day is more about the church and gathering together with a bunch of people," McDougall said. "Benedict to me is kind of a symbol that everybody can connect together with the same idea."

    Melancon also stressed the international dimension.

    "As soon as I heard about World Youth Day, I wanted to be here," he said. "We had planned a trip with my family to Europe, and when we found out that World Youth Day was going to be this year, we just had to do it. It's being able to experience all this powerful faith from people all around the world. It's so obvious that the Catholic church is a world church. It's not just confined to one country … it transcends countries and backgrounds, rich and poor … it's all-encompassing."

    * * *

    This may be a bit of insider baseball, but attentive Vatican-watchers were waiting for the papal liturgies at World Youth Day to see if the somewhat Broadway-esque elements familiar from past editions, associated with Archbishop Piero Marini, the longtime liturgist of John Paul II, would be scrubbed. Given the passion of Benedict XVI for reverent, sober liturgies whose focus is on God rather than the human participants, some expected a more toned-down, "classical" style.

    Admittedly, the Saturday night vigil was not a Mass, but it nevertheless featured vespers and a Eucharistic devotional service. It was striking, therefore, that many characteristic Marini touches were still there -- suggesting that at least on this score, and at least for now, Benedict XVI has opted for a philosophy of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

    As Pope Benedict snaked around the vast Marienfeld plain in his popemobile, for example, a Christian band on stage belted out a series of upbeat pop numbers. In a perfect symbol of blending of pop culture and Christian faith, the band's guitarist sported a small cross in the neck of his guitar.

    Benedict XVI later intoned the opening collect, or prayer, in a classic chant, only to be followed by a lengthy and rousing sing-along to the pop anthem of World Youth Day: "Jesus Christ, you are my life, alleluia!"

    Just before an Italian young man and a German young woman offered their personal testimonies of faith, a Indian dance group performed in front of the pope. Later, during the presentation of gifts, a group of Africans performed a traditional dance down the central aisle in front of the altar mound, accompanied by African drumming.

    To top it all off, in the middle of the service an Argentinean juggler named Paul Ponce did a number with hats, followed by another juggler who tossed flaming torches into the air as the crowd roared.

    When he finished, Benedict XVI actually stood and applauded.

    The same touches appeared Sunday during the Mass. Young men pounded drums wearing Indian headdresses, and pop bands belted out snappy melodies. At one stage, Incans in native costumes played their pipes.

    The Gloria was accompanied by South American zamponas and charangos, followed by an Indian sitar, African drums, and an Australian didgeridoo.

    It's too early to know what any of this means -- it could simply be a patient pope biding his time. But it's nevertheless one small indication that the sweeping "restoration" some expected from Benedict XVI, especially on liturgical matters, may not be forthcoming in quite the way some had imagined.

    * * *

    This being Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation and home to the most successful liberal Catholic movement in recent experience, called "We Are church," a papal trip would not be complete without some ripples of dissent.

    Those ripples came in the form of a series of events coordinated by a group of roughly 50 young Catholics, representing We Are Church and other progressive Catholic groups, including Catholics for a Free Choice, a pro-choice advocacy group that represents something of a bęte noir for the American bishops. Their effort had as its slogan "WYD4All," or "World Youth Day for All." Of the 50 members in the group, 45 came from Europe, with five from the United States and Latin America. One person from Ghana was scheduled to come but could not get a visa.

    Another source of the support for the effort came from the gay community in Cologne, which is more or less the San Francisco of Germany -- i.e., the country's gay capital. In July, a million people gathered in the city for a gay pride festival.

    WYD4All's chief spokesperson, Tobias Raschke, 26, told me that each of the sponsoring groups contributed in its own way, but much of the money came from Catholics for a Free Choice.

    Over the course of the week in Cologne, the 50 participants handed out some 40,000-50,000 flyers backing a campaign called "Condoms for Life," intended to make the argument that by opposing the use of condoms, the Catholic church is actually contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS. They also put up "Condoms for Life" ads in Cologne subways.

    The group also sponsored an information center located in an Old Catholic parish in Cologne, as well as a series of press conferences and roundtable discussions on themes such as birth control, women priests, peacemaking, ecumenism and homosexuality.

    On Saturday night, I asked Raschke if he felt their efforts had been successful.

    "We brought attention to the crisis of HIV/AIDS, and the impact of the bishops' ban on condoms," Raschke told me. "We want to promote a culture of life, as opposed to the pope and the bishops. There are14,000 people infected with HIV every day, which is five per minute. In fact, the bishops are promoting a culture of death," he said.

    "We also brought the gay community into the conversation, which is such an integral part of this city. They should be welcomed by the church."

    Raschke said the young liberals had only a few negative experiences of being confronted by ardent pro-lifers in the streets of the city.

    "We explained that all we want is to help people make informed, caring and responsible choices," he said.

    Raschke said that over the course of the week, perhaps 1,000 World Youth Day participants stopped by their center -- which, Raschke argued, was a good result given that their location was somewhat off the beaten track, and that they received no mention in official World Youth Day materials.

    In the end, though, does Raschke really believe that these efforts will force the church to change?

    "I'm 26," he said. "The pope is 78. Time is on my side."

    Moreover, he argued, the reality of the HIV/AIDS crisis will eventually force the church to revise at least its teaching on condoms. Among other pressure points, Raschke predicted that there will be rising criticism in the United Nations and the European Union of the policies of both the Vatican and the Bush administration on matters of sexual morality.

    At the same time, Raschke conceded that it is increasingly difficult to motivate young Catholics to join a church reform movement.

    "We speak for the majority of Catholics, at least in most countries of the world," Raschke said. "In Germany, we represent the views of 75 to 80 percent of Catholics. But the church is not changing fast enough, or can't change fast enough, and young people lose interest."

    In that light, Raschke said that if a Catholic reform movement wants to attract youth, it should focus less on internal ecclesiastical struggles and more on debates in the secular political realm -- globalization, war and peace, and so on.

    "The idea should be to bring a Catholic voice, as opposed to the voice of the hierarchy, to bear on these issues," he said.

    * * *

    The last World Youth Day took place in Toronto in 2002, against the backdrop of the most white-hot period of the American sexual abuse crisis.

    Appearing before a vast crowd of American youth, John Paul II said that "the harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame."

    Three years after the fact, what did the American Catholic youth think about the fallout from the crisis?

    Many told me the same thing they had said in Toronto -- that in an odd way, the experience had bolstered their commitment to the church.

    "It made us stronger in the faith," said Deedee Gonzales, 18, from Port Angeles, Washington. "When things are going bad, you have to think more about why you're Catholic, what it all means.

    "We haven't forgotten about it," said Matthew Dubeau, 24, also of Port Angeles. "But it actually made me defend the church, which meant that I had to do more thinking and praying."

    Neither of these young American Catholics, nor others with whom I spoke here, had any sympathy for priests who committed sexual abuse or bishops who allowed it to happen. But they said that hearing the church attacked in the media, in school, and among their friends, had put them in a position of explaining their commitment to it in a way they had never previously been pressed to do. That, they said, was perhaps the silver lining in the experience.

    * * *

    The first unscripted moment for Benedict XVI on this trip came at the opening of the Sunday Mass, after Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne welcomed him to the Mass site. Benedict, who had not take the customary long and winding route through the crowd in the popemobile, took the microphone.

    "I would have liked to take the popemobile through the field in order to greet everybody, in order to be close to everybody," he said. "But because of some difficulties this was not possible. But I bless you all, God loves you all."

    The pope went to talk about "the secret of His presence and communion" in the Eucharist. He then shifted to introducing the mea culpa.

    "We all know we are imperfect, we have no right to the Lord," he said. "It's right to contemplate our sins, to ask Him to take away everything that separates us from the Lord, so we are prepared to receive the Holy Eucharist."

    * * *

    It's always dangerous to push national stereotypes too far, but one could certainly spot glimpses of the legendary Teutonic passion for order during the Cologne World Youth Day.

    My favorite example: The press center was located inside the KolnMesse, a large conference facility, in hall number five. To reach it from the hotel where the Vatican press corps stayed, one had to walk through an underground tunnel, which ended just outside an entrance to the hall. Instead of allowing journalists to enter there, however, the security officers had set up a barrier and insisted that reporters walk around to another entrance. One presumes that during the week, the idea was to prevent throngs of young pilgrims from congregating in the outside area and thus clogging access for the press.

    By Sunday morning, however, all the youth were at the Mass at Marienfeld, and the KolnMesse was largely deserted. In fact, many journalists were at the Mass site too, leaving behind only a few of us who had to do radio or TV.

    Yet there was the security guard, still directing reporters away from the barrier. I tried pointing out to him that this system was developed in order to protect our access to the hall, but it had now outlived its usefulness.

    His answer?

    "No one has told me to stop," he said.

    August 21, 2005, National Catholic Reporter

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