Young pilgrims were perched in trees, on signposts and atop ladders, craning their necks to see or snap a photo of Pope Benedict XVI on his first papal tour of Cologne, Germany, and his first World Youth Day as the head of the Catholic Church.
The banks of the Rhine River were packed with youth, who roared with cheers and clapping as the Pope waved and sailed past. Pilgrims spontaneously chanted “Benedetto!” while others commented on his warmth or on the presence of the WYD Cross that stood on the boat’s deck.
Most of the bridges and streets leading to the city center were blocked to all traffic yesterday for security reasons.
The Pope issued his first address to youth from the boat, reading parts in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian. After sailing about two kilometers up and down the river, the boat docked and the Pope made his way to the Cologne Cathedral.
Some pilgrims skipped the crowds on the riverbank and chose to watch the event from one of five big screens that were set up in different parts of the city. At Tanzbrennen Köln, about 1,000 young people cheered as they watched the Pope walk off the boat and head toward the cathedral.
They cheered again as Pope Benedict held hands with the African and South American youth walking beside him. They also broke out into the chant “Benedetto!” at various intervals.
Back at the cathedral, the rector expressed a warm welcome to Pope Benedict before he entered the elaborate basilica and prayed before the relics of the Magi. The 78-year-old pontiff also sat in a chair by the high altar, which is reserved for the Pope. The cathedral has had this special papal chair since 1049.
Once outside the cathedral on Roncalli Square, Cardinal Joachim Meisner extended yet another welcome. Both he and the Pope sought to settle the cheering crowd in order to communicate their messages. The pilgrims chuckled at the sight.
Pope Benedict had a prepared speech, but he diverted from it somewhat, speaking freely from his heart and referring to it only on occasion. He spoke solely in German, and one woman in the crowd in Tanzbrennen Köln commented on how poetic and beautiful his German was.
He spoke briefly of his memories of Cologne, his teaching experiences in neighboring Bonn, and his participation at the Second Vatican Council as a young priest.
He spoke of how the relics of the Magi made their way from Milan to Cologne in 1164 thanks to the Archbishop Reinald von Dassel of Cologne.
“Along with Jerusalem, the “Holy City”, Rome, the “Eternal City” and Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Cologne, thanks to the Magi, has become down the centuries one of the most important places of pilgrimage in the Christian West,” he said.
He also mentioned the many saints who marked the northern German city, like St. Ursula, St. Boniface, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Blessed Adolph Kolping, and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein).
“In these and all the other saints, both known and unknown, we discover the deepest and truest face of this city and we become aware of the legacy of values handed down to us by the generations of Christians who have gone before us,” he said. “It is a very rich legacy. We need to be worthy of it. It is a responsibility of which the very stones of the city’s ancient buildings remind us. Indeed it is these spiritual values that make possible mutual comprehension between individuals and peoples, between different cultures and civilizations.”
He extended another a warm greeting to the representatives of different Christian denominations and other religions, whose presence at WYD, he said, marks a step forward on the path towards reconciliation and unity.
“You represent those distant peoples who came to know Christ through the Magi and who were brought together as the new People of God, the Church, which gathers men and women from every culture,” the Pope told the young people.
“Today it is your task to live and breathe the Church’s universality. Let yourselves be inflamed by the fire of the Spirit, so that a new Pentecost will renew your hearts,” he said.
“Through you, may other young people everywhere come to recognize in Christ the true answer to their deepest aspirations, and may they open their hearts to receive the Word of God Incarnate, who died and rose from the dead for the salvation of the world,” he concluded.
The young people then prayed the Our Father and the Hail Mary with the Pope and Cardinal Meisner for the repose of the soul of Br. Roger, the founder of the Taize Community who was killed Monday.
Rona Chavez of Toronto, Canada, said the Pope’s message was one of hope. “He is calling us to go beyond our capabilities and search for Jesus, like the Magi,” said the 27-year-old Filipino.
For 23-year-old Fernando Serrano, it was very important to participate in Benedict’s first WYD. “It was important to support Pope Benedict because Germany is not a very Catholic country,” he said.
The first-time pilgrim traveled with 300 other young people from the diocese of Cordoba, Spain. “I am grateful to him,” Serrano continued. “We don’t know him very well yet but he is still close to the young people.”
A group of 80 pilgrims from nine dioceses in Haiti watched the Pope from the riverbank, and then moved over to the big screen for what followed at the cathedral.
“The Pope’s message was stimulating,” said Fr. Clarke de la Cruz, a professor at the Grand Seminary in Haiti. “He invited the young people to a greater understanding of the Church. He encouraged young people in their search for God. He invited them to look around and contribute in the ways that God is calling us.”