If you were reading the German media in the days before the recent
World Youth Day in Cologne, you would have expected more dour
protesters than delighted pilgrims. Here’s Deutsche Welle’s comment a
week before: “there’s no doubt that the Church does not have a future
without young people. Yet, it’s not exactly true that the Roman
Catholic Church is ‘young’ — at least if you look at the situation in
Western Europe. The majority of young people is neither interested in
the Church nor in following Catholic doctrines.”

What actually happened left German TV journalists gobsmacked. The
received wisdom — that youngsters would like the event, but didn’t
care for the Faith — was shattered. More than one million joyful young
pilgrims invaded Cologne, cheered the Pope and openly prayed. The sheer
impact of the images was overwhelming. Dominating the news was the
white-garbed Pontiff on a catamaran slowly cruising up the Rhine
encircled by 1200 youths from all over the world. On both banks of the
immense river half a million more, the front row standing knee-deep in
water, were cheering and singing: “Be-ne-detto! Be-ne-detto!”  

Now that a few weeks have elapsed, the penny has dropped for the
commentariat. Benedict XVI is neither the “German shepherd”, as he was
dubbed by the British tabloid press, nor a doddering Übergangspapst, a
mere nightwatchman for  John Paul the Great’s legacy. In fact,
Pope Benedict has his own agenda. Shy and friendly he may be, but with
his razor-sharp intellect, long experience, and deep piety, he is
setting his own course. Perhaps a few snapshots of what happened during
that memorable week will reveal what the new Pope is planning.

This is the experience of Father Rolf: he only wanted to be one of the
thousand priests who concelebrated with the Pope on the Marienfeld. But
then one youngster wanted to go to Confession. Then another. After
three hours hearing confessions standing up, he gasped: “If you don’t
get me something. to sit on, I will faint.”

And Father Stefan: he heard confessions from six in the afternoon until
2.30 am during the vigil before the official World Youth Day.
Afterwards he went to the tent of adoration — and had to queue up for
half an hour. Thousands of young people were silently praying on their
knees. They couldn’t even see the monstrance with the Blessed
Eucharist. They believed.

According to Cologne’s Cardinal Joachim Meisner, hundreds of thousands
of young people went to confession during the week. So much for Deutsche Welle’s sniffy observation that
“German youth of today are not necessarily becoming less religious;
they are simply less interested in experiencing God through the
mediation of the Church.”

The Benedict Project

Two main ideas pop up in the aftermath of the Cologne WYD. The German
media is starting to call them Das Benedikt-Projekt: Project Benedict.

To begin with: “A first evangelization of Europe”. In his address to
German Bishops at the end of World Youth Day, Benedict commented on
their own summary of German Christianity: “We have become a mission
land.” The Pope said: “And I therefore believe that throughout
Europe… we should give serious thought as to how to achieve a true
evangelisation in this day and age, not only a new evangelisation, but
often a true and proper first evangelisation.”

“People do not know God; they do not know Christ. There is a new form
of paganism and it is not enough for us to strive to preserve the
existing flock, although this is very important. We must ask the
important question: what really is life?” The Pope stresses that this
is not alone his task but everyone’s challenge: “I believe we must all
try together to find new ways of bringing the Gospel to the
contemporary world, of proclaiming Christ anew and of implanting the
faith.”

The second element in Project Benedict is worship. He quoted a priest
hanged by the Nazis, Father Alfred Delp: “Nothing is more important
than worship”. The Pontiff went on: “Nonetheless, in our new context in
which worship, and thus also the face of human dignity, has been lost,
it is once again up to us to understand the priority of worship. We
must make youth, ourselves and our communities, aware of the fact that
it is not a luxury of our confused epoch, that we cannot permit
ourselves, but a priority. Wherever worship does not exist any more,
wherever it is not a priority to pay honour to God, human realities can
make no headway.”

And the Pope concluded: “We must therefore endeavour to make the face
of Christ visible, the face of the living God, so that like the Magi we
may spontaneously fall to our knees and adore him. Two things certainly
happened in the Magi: first they sought; then they found and worshipped
him.”

“We have come to adore him.” The words of the Three Wise Men taken from
the Gospel of Matthew were the motto of World Youth Day. The 1.2
million worshipping and celebrating pilgrims actually showed a face of
the Church unprecedented on German television. For several days joyful
young Catholics from all over the world had top billing in the news. “I
have never seen so many rosaries on TV!” commented one university
student. This powerful outburst of Christian joy surprised critics, who
openly asked: “What do they have what we don’t have?”

Highest ever TV audience

About 250 million people from every corner of the earth watched World
Youth Day according to the European Broadcasting Union. Cologne’s
Westdeutscher Rundfunk-TV had its highest-ever audience with 45 per
cent of all households — around 9 million people — watching the vigil
with the Pope. The Sunday morning Mass was transmitted by all four
major channels in Germany, even though there are only 27 million
Catholics in a Germany of 82 million. Only about 14 per cent of these
go to church on Sunday.

“This is an age of miracles and wonders, of sightings of  Mary and
warnings, of prophecy, graces and gifts” Bob Dylan sang a few years
ago. Peggy Noonan took up this line in an editorial for the Wall Street
Journal
and added: “The choosing of Benedict XVI, a man who is serious,
deep and brave, is a gift.” Her German colleague Dietmar Dath wrote in
a leader for the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “It is the humdrum
of the consumer society that makes so many people more and more lonely.
And it is events like the WYD that can tell them that they are not
outsiders if they search for a meaning beyond material things. If they
can pass on this discovery to others, the Pope’s visit can cause a
historic turn.”

In the lead-up to Cologne, Deutsche Welle pontificated that “the
Church’s stances are often not in line with the values of today’s
youth, especially when it comes to sexual issues”. Here’s one story
amongst many which confounds this scepticism about the evergreen vigour
of Christian faith.  

At the age of 17 Luka Keller, an agnostic high school student, read
Ratzinger’s The Spirit of Liturgy. Four years later, as a physics
student at Muenster University, she asked for religious instruction in
a centre of Opus Dei. The day before World Youth Day began, she was
baptised. “I learned to concentrate on God and not just on myself, and
that the truth has to be won with humility and not just knowledge.” Her
personal journey is surely a sign of things to come.

Hartwig Bouillon is a freelance journalist in Germany.