Pope Benedict XVI concluded a visit to Germany by urging the one million Catholics who gathered for World Youth Day to help turn violence into love…
In a time when, he said, we have forgotten God, the 78-year-old Pope rounded off the four-day visit – his first foreign trip since his April election as head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics – with a rousing call for Catholics to take the message of Christ to the world. He said he hoped his trip will help to kick-start "a wave of new faith among young people".
“Help people to discover the true star which points the way to us: Jesus Christ” he said. “Let us seek to know him better and better, so as to be able to guide others to him with conviction.”
In his Sunday homily, the Pope criticised "a kind of new explosion of religion" that if pushed too far, turned religion into "almost a consumer product”. Issuing a staunch defence of the everyday practice of religion, he warned the multinational, flag-waving crowd of young pilgrims that constructing their religion on a "do-it-yourself" basis would ultimately prove fruitless.
At one point during his 20-minute sermon, the Pope gently urged the crowds assembled from nearly 200 countries around the world to "make the effort" to attend Sunday mass.
Some 800,000 people had spent the night outdoors at the Marienfeld site, a former coalmine outside the city of Cologne, waiting for the Mass. The Pope had received an ecstatic welcome by the gathered pilgrims at an open-air prayer vigil at the Marienfeld on Saturday evening.
He told the crowd that there was "much that could be criticised in the Church. We know this and the Lord himself told us so: it is a net with good fish and bad fish.”
On Sunday morning, hundreds of thousands of Catholics emerged blinking from a night spent in the open air. Under a thick blanket of fog, young people wrapped in sleeping bags woke from an autumnal night trying as best they could to prepare for the culminating mass with Pope Benedict XVI.
Among the pilgrims, Daniel Hale, a 23-year-old postgraduate research student from Birmingham, grinned as he recounted his experience of seeing Pope Benedict in the flesh for the first time. “It’s been an amazing experience,” he told me. “Before this visit, people didn’t know what to expect from the new Pope. Now he has opened himself up to us and I feel close to the Church as a result.”
Crowds surged to get a glimpse of the Holy Father as he was driven to the elevated altar in his tall, glass-covered ‘popemobile’ to the sound of hymns as thousands of priests lined up to assist in the service.
During the Pope’s four-day visit to Germany, he became only the second Pope in modern times to visit a synagogue, and also met with Muslim and Protestant representatives, as well as Germany’s political leaders.
Visiting Cologne’s synagogue destroyed during the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom and rebuilt in 1959, the Pope recalled with sorrow the Nazi persecution of the Jews as "the darkest period of German and European history." He warned of new signs of anti-Semitism today and said the Catholic Church has a duty to remember the Holocaust and to teach its lessons to younger generations who did not witness the "terrible events" that took place before and during the Second World War.
In his pontificate’s first major address to Muslim leaders, the Pope on Saturday appealed to all Muslims to help combat the spread of terrorism. Highlighting the importance of dialogue between Christians and Muslims that "cannot be reduced to an optional extra", he told a group of Islamic leaders based in Germany that terrorist activity was perverse and cruel. He bluntly added that Muslim leaders had a "great responsibility" in properly educating their younger generations to follow their religion peacefully.
The World Youth Day festival, invented by the Pope John Paul II, is held in a different part of the world every three years, and the late Pope had made the occasion a centre-piece of his dynamic, jet-setting pontificate.
The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is a much shier person than the late Pope John Paul, not usually looking comfortable among huge crowds, but the warm welcome afforded him by throngs of jubilant pilgrims lining the river Rhine on Thursday suggested that Pope Benedict has inherited the people’s affection for his predecessor.
Travelling by boat to Cologne Cathedral, the Pope waved to the throngs gathered – some waist deep in the water, and was greeted by chants of “Benedetto” – the Italian translation for Benedict.
On Friday, the Pope had endeared himself to a dozen pilgrims from six continents who were handpicked to have lunch with him. They found him disarmingly open-minded, knowledgeable about their home countries and, above all, interested in them as individuals.
Lubica Javonovic, a 19-year-old from Australia, said that when the pope walked into the room "it was like heaven touching earth."
Anna Herbst, an 18-year-old German, said the Pope had been due to eat fish but, saying that would leave him less time to talk with the gathered youths, he opted for the simpler option of an omelette followed by apple strudel.
There was little anxiety among the young people I met during the 16-21 World Youth Day celebrations in Cologne about the Pope’s hard line stance on such issues as homosexuality, contraception and abortion. Many of those I spoke to found Benedict a comforting presence to young Catholics and urged him to resist pressure to relax the Vatican’s unbending stance on sexual ethics.
“You know where you stand with him,” said Rebecca Cheetham, a 17-year-old-student from Blackpool. “While the world is dominated by selfishness and materialism, the Pope stands as a true example of how to live a holy, selfless existence.”
The Pope on Sunday announced that the next World Youth Day, in 2008, would be hosted by Sydney, Australia.
On Sunday evening, the Pope was due to fly back to Italy, with his pilot taking a special detour over Bavaria so that Benedict XVI could look out over his birthplace of Marktl am Inn.