Special Report -- World Youth Day
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Issue Date:  September 2, 2005

New pope takes case to 1 million youth

Cologne, Germany

Going into Benedict XVI’s Aug. 18-21 trip to Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day, in effect his debut on the international stage, the towering question was whether the world would find out what kind of pope this 78-year-old German intellectual intends to be.

After an intense four days, it seems we have the outlines of an answer.

The new pope, who just before his April election dramatically warned of a growing “dictatorship of relativism,” seems determined to make the following argument: Coherence in Catholic faith and practice, to which he variously invited, exhorted and cajoled the 1 million youth who came to see him, is not a matter of fear or control, but of liberating the human person to find the happiness God intends.

Objective truth, as Benedict pitched it in Cologne, with all the moral and doctrinal rules it implies, is not a limit on freedom, but the gateway to freedom.

As a spin-off of that core idea, the pope also seems determined to continue John Paul II’s efforts to reach out to other religions, especially Jews and Muslims, but to be more blunt about differences where he believes matters of truth are at stake.

Obedience as a joyful love affair with God was, to invoke the image of the Three Wise Men of the New Testament who were the patrons of this World Youth Day, the Star in the East around which his messages in Cologne revolved.

“The Latin word for adoration is adoratio -- mouth to mouth contact, a kiss, an embrace, and hence ultimately love,” Benedict told the vast crowd on the Marienfeld plain outside Cologne in his homily at the Aug. 21 final Mass. Hundreds of thousands had braved unseasonably cool temperatures to sleep outside awaiting the pope.

“Submission becomes union, because he to whom we submit is love. In this way submission acquires a meaning, because it does not impose anything on us from the outside, but liberates us deep within.”

How many of the youth gathered in Cologne, to say nothing of their contemporaries who did not make the trip, can be persuaded to view the rules and regulations of Roman Catholicism in quite this fashion remains to be seen.

At least some of the pumped-up Catholics in Cologne liked what they heard.

“As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he was puttin’ the smack-down on heresy,” said Pedro Russell, a 21-year-old from Bitteroot Valley, Mont., who cuts quite a figure -- tall, with bright green hair, and a rosary around his neck.

“Personally, I’m looking forward to that. There were 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.”

Another view

Others seemed more dubious.

For example, a determined group of young Catholic protesters spent much of the week in Cologne pushing the church to revise its teaching on condoms.

“We want to promote a culture of life, as opposed to the pope and the bishops,” said Tobias Raschke, a 26-year-old German who was the main spokesperson for a counter-gathering called “WYD4All.”

“There are 14,000 people infected with HIV every day, which is five per minute. In fact, the bishops are promoting a culture of death,” he said.

Raschke conceded that relatively few of the devoted Catholic youth who spent the week in Cologne showed interest, but insisted that his group speaks for a broader majority of young Catholics worldwide.

Benedict, however, is a man for whom persuading the majority has never been the primary measure of success. He speaks of Christianity as a “creative minority,” a sociologically diminished group, but alive with faith and passion and thus able to exercise an outsized impact on the culture.

The 1 million youth from 197 nations gathered in Cologne may thus represent the vanguard of his “creative minority.”

Deedee Gonzales, 18, from Port Angeles, Wash., suggested what may be the value of a World Youth Day: “Meeting other Catholic youth from all over the world makes you want to be more dedicated,” she said. “You want to go to church more, to pray more.”

Matthew Dubeau, 24, also from Port Angeles, said, “I come from an area without many Catholics. It’s always good to be reminded that although we may be a minority, there are an awful lot of us.”

Benedict wasn’t just calling young people to join him in resisting the “dictatorship of relativism,” however, but also the bishops. He addressed the bishops of Germany Sunday afternoon before returning to Rome.

“There can be no false compromise, no watering down of the Gospel,” he warned them.

Among other things, the pope encouraged the bishops to vet Catholic educators carefully to make sure they are “on board” with church teachings.

“I am confident that you will take care to ensure that the persons chosen to be teachers of religion and catechists are well-prepared and faithful to the church’s magisterium,” he said.

At one level, the pope’s message to the young people was relatively simple -- pray, go to Mass, be in communion with the pope and bishops. Yet these practical, pastoral fervorinos were part of a larger intellectual mosaic, the heart of which has to do with seeing Jesus Christ as the lodestar of human existence.

In his message during a Saturday night vigil, he lauded the youthful desire to change the world, but warned of the dangers of trying to do so without God. A dictatorship of relativism, the pope suggested, leads by a short path to totalitarianism.

“In the last century we experienced revolutions with a common program – expecting nothing more from God, they assumed total responsibility for the cause of the world in order to change it,” the pope said. “And this, as we saw, meant that a human and partial point of view was always taken as an absolute guiding principle. Absolutizing what is not absolute but relative is called totalitarianism. It does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him.”

“It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to the living God. … True revolution consists in simply turning to God, who is the measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting love. And what could ever save us apart from love?”

Cologne also provided insight on Pope Benedict’s interreligious approach.

The Jewish community in Cologne is the oldest north of the Alps, and at the time of the Second World War numbered some 20,000, roughly 11,000 of whom died in Nazi camps. Pope Benedict XVI, a man who was involuntarily enrolled in the Hitler Youth and who served in the German army before deserting, brought a special biographical resonance to the visit.

He offered an unambiguous condemnation of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

“In the 20th century, in the darkest period of German and European history, an insane racist ideology, born of neopaganism, gave rise to the attempt, planned and systematically carried out by the regime, to exterminate European Jewry,” Benedict XVI said.

“The result has passed into history as the Shoah. … The holiness of God was no longer recognized, and consequently contempt was shown for the sacredness of human life.”

The pope condemned a “growing anti-Semitism,” pledging the full efforts of the church to resist it.

Yet Benedict also pressed Jews and Christians to be frank with one another, not just about what they share, but also about their theological differences rooted in “profound convictions in faith.”

Though he did not unpack the point, most observers understood this, at least in part, as a reference to debates over whether Christians should formally renounce attempts to convert Jews -- something that Benedict sees as a betrayal of Christianity’s missionary imperative.

Moreover, his description of National Socialism as “born of neopaganism” seemed a clear, if indirect, rebuff to the view that Christianity as such (as opposed to the actions of individual Christians) was also to blame.

If his message at the synagogue required a little reading between the lines, his message was crystal clear with Muslims the next day. Many in the Vatican had long whispered that John Paul II was too “soft” with Muslims on terrorism and religious liberty, and these were precisely the themes Benedict raised.

“Those who instigate and plan these attacks evidently wish to poison our relations, making use of all means, including religion, to oppose every attempt to build a peaceful, fair and serene life together,” the pope said. “Terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel decision which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil society.”

A clear challenge

Benedict was careful not to identify Islam with violence -- indeed, he introduced the remarks quoted above by saying he was sure his words echoed the thoughts of his audience. Nevertheless, he issued a clear challenge to Islamic leaders to confront the radicals in their midst.

“Words are highly influential in the education of the mind. You, therefore, have a great responsibility for the formation of the younger generation. … There is no room for apathy and disengagement, and even less for partiality and sectarianism,” he said.

Benedict was equally blunt on the subject of religious freedom, though he did not treat the theme at such length.

“We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other’s identity,” he said. “The defense of religious freedom, in this sense, is a permanent imperative and respect for minorities is a clear sign of true civilization.”

The implication seemed to be that those cultures where religious freedom is not protected, among which some would include states governed by Islamic law, do not represent “true civilization.”

Almost anticipating Pope Benedict’s invitation to candor, leaders of both communities used the visits to push the pope on particular points.

Abraham Lehrer, a leader of the synagogue community, told the pope that a decision by the Vatican to fully open its World War II archives “would be a good thing.” Ridvan Cakir, president of the Turkish-Islamic Union in Germany, suggested that Turkey offers a model of inter-religious harmony and should be considered for entry into the European Union.

In neither case did the pope offer an immediate response.

Despite the flash points, the Jewish and Islamic groups seemed genuinely delighted with how things went. In a final touch of affection as Benedict was preparing to pull away from the synagogue, for example, a man from the congregation wearing a traditional Jewish yarmulke and tallit sprinted toward the pope’s car and planted a kiss on the window.

Beyond the content of the trip, much media interest focused on its style, and especially the inevitable comparison to the magical charisma John Paul II had with young people. On that front, Benedict XVI revealed himself as a pope determined not to ape his predecessor, even though he invoked John Paul in virtually every address.

That was clear from the first instants of his arrival Aug. 18, when Benedict XVI did not bend to kiss the German soil (or, in the manner of John Paul II in his later years, have a bowl of soil brought to him for the kiss). There was none of the impromptu ad-libbing or Polish folk songs of John Paul-style World Youth Days; Benedict only departed once from his prepared scripts, explaining in a low-key fashion on Sunday morning that he would have liked to take an extensive swing through the crowd in the Popemobile, but logistical difficulties made that impossible.

Logistical snafus

Despite that, the crowds at Cologne seemed large and enthusiastic, an accomplishment all the more impressive given a series of logistical snafus with food, transportation and housing that left many young people fatigued, famished and frustrated.

When Benedict XVI cruised up and down the Rhine on Thursday afternoon, for example, waving and smiling to the tens of thousands of youth on either side of the river, the affection for the pope seemed real.

In the end, the verdict on Benedict as a performer was largely positive. He may not pack the magnetic punch of John Paul, but he generally came across as gracious and kind. He never seemed a scold, even while criticizing “do-it-yourself” religion, but generally struck an upbeat tone. Further, from a media point of view, his speeches made news.

Moreover, Benedict showed himself to be not quite the fusspot some imagine: After a juggler tossed flaming torches around the stage during the Saturday vigil while a pop band played, for example, Benedict stood and applauded.

Speaking on background, German organizers told NCR at the beginning of the trip that one major objective was to “rehabilitate” Joseph Ratzinger in the court of German public opinion, where he has sometimes loomed as a rather foreboding figure. At trip’s end, they seemed to feel they had pulled it off.

“It was marvelous,” Matthias Kopp, the spokesperson for World Youth Day in Cologne, told NCR Aug. 21 after the pope’s concluding Mass. Kopp said that plans for the Mass had been based on projections of 800,000 people, but 1 million came.

“It shows that the church in Germany, which can sometimes seem a bit old, also has a young face.”

As expected, Benedict XVI announced on Sunday that the next World Youth Day will take place in Sydney, Australia, in 2008. Though he did not give the dates, they are now set for July 15-20, following the normal Tuesday through Sunday format of previous World Youth Day celebrations.

Pope Benedict did not give a clear indication of whether he intends to be present for the Sydney event. Though he seemed energetic and refreshed in Cologne, in 2008 he will be 81 years old, raising questions about whether his health will permit the trip. Further, it’s not clear whether as a matter of policy he believes the physical presence of the pope is required.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.


NCR provided extensive daily online coverage of World Youth Day in Cologne, which can be found at www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/word

National Catholic Reporter, September 2, 2005

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