NEWS STORY: Catholic Youth Offer Pope a Chance to `Make His Case’

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

COLOGNE, Germany _ It is probably too early to know whether Pope Benedict XVI, the new shepherd of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, will be able to establish the kind of popular appeal his predecessor had with young believers.

Early indications from the church’s World Youth Day festivities here, however, indicate that he might come close.

Perhaps one of Benedict’s challenges is his soft-spoken personality, far more introspective and unassuming than the charisma of the wildly popular John Paul II, who died in April.

But if the estimated 100,000 young people gathered here Friday (Aug. 19), the pope’s first full day, were looking to Benedict for the kind of impromptu one-liners that characterized John Paul II’s trips, they never let on.

“Give God your own `yes,”’ Benedict said to overflowing crowds that lined the Rhine River on Thursday to hear him speak from a riverboat. “Young people, the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy, has a name and a face: It is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth.”

On Friday, Benedict told another large and mostly young crowd on hand as he entered the synagogue in Cologne: “You are the future of the church. The spiritual future of Europe is in your hands.”

In both cases, the results were the same: rapturous applause and embraces among the crowd, with some young people in tears. Members of the crowd waved signs expressing support and chanted the pontiff’s name. The European media that affectionately dubbed the Aug. 16-21 event “the Catholic Woodstock” weren’t far off base.

“We are Catholics and Benedict is here to give us guidance and we love him,” declared Sarah Collins, a 21-year-old junior at Purdue University in Indiana. She sported a T-shirt reading “I love my German Shepherds” with pictures of both Benedict and Daniel Buechlein, the German-American archbishop of Indianapolis, on the back.

Anja Koch, a 24-year-old teacher from Dresden, Germany, was in tears as she watched Benedict enter the synagogue.

“This is the best day of my life,” she said in accented English, while wiping her eyes. “To see such a great man so close in my country and his country. I am overwhelmed.”

The reception was stunning for a man who _ before becoming pope _ was known as “God’s Rottweiler.” In his biographies, the word “youth” rarely appeared except for references to the Hitler Youth, in which he served briefly and unenthusiastically during World War II.

Aides are at a loss to convincingly explain the pope’s popularity among young people, who streamed into Cologne at the rate of almost 6,000 per hour Friday, according to local media reports. Organizers expect some 800,000 to attend the final Mass on Sunday _ quite a feat in a highly secular country like Germany, and comparable to crowds drawn by John Paul II in highly Catholic countries like the Philippines or Italy.

That is not to say that Benedict’s four-month-old papacy has been without controversy. The pontiff’s traditional views on issues such as the role of women in the church, the rights of homosexuals and the use of birth control are seen as more conservative than those of the church as a whole.

But so far those elements of the church have failed to gain traction, at least here in Cologne. A reform group, We Are Church, placed thousands of signs around the city protesting the church’s stand on condom use. But We Are Church speakers peppered around the city failed to attract more than a few dozen listeners at a time. The Catholic youth here began an unscripted effort to pull down the organization’s posters _ a move effective enough that by Friday afternoon it became hard to locate more than just a few of them.

“I don’t think anyone could be in this position (as pope) without attracting some controversy,” said 23-year-old Luca Serrano, who made the trip to Cologne from the Naples, Italy, area with his church youth group. “But I think everyone should give the pope a chance to make his case. He has only been pope for a few months.”

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

After John Paul’s death, there was some speculation that World Youth Day _ which he created in 1986 _ could suffer from his absence. Instead, the event has taken on increased importance, as Benedict has made it into a cornerstone of his efforts to revitalize the church in Europe. Benedict could use the rally not only to reach out to young people to fill the pews, but also to increase vocations to the priesthood, which have been on the decline in Europe for almost 50 years.

Expert observers say that so far, things have gone well from that perspective.

“Realistically, there is little Benedict can do that would dramatically improve the church’s situation in Europe while he is here in Germany,” said the Rev. Alexander Birgiter, a church commentator based in Benedict’s home region of Bavaria.

“But one could imagine a situation where the situation was dramatically worsened. But clearly, that is not happening.”

KRE/PH END LYMAN

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