Twelve World Youth Day pilgrims had the privilege to have lunch with Pope Benedict XVI Friday at the Grand Seminary of Cologne. The six women and six men, whose ages ranged from 18 to 28, came from six continents. Five were from Europe, two from Africa and one each from North America, South America, Australia and Asia.
The lunch, which consisted of a salad, a vegetable omelet, potatoes, and apple pie for dessert, lasted for nearly an hour and a half. The Pope had been offered trout instead but he declined, saying that he wanted the same thing that the young people were having.
Canadian Veronique Rondeau was one of the 12, and she was pleasantly surprised to discover that the new pontiff was warm and welcoming. “I was expecting someone colder, more distant, guided more by protocol, but it wasn’t the case,” she admitted to reporters.
Rondeau, 23, said the Pope’s questions and eye contact demonstrated that he was really interested in what the pilgrims had to say. He asked the Montreal native about the two movements of which she is a member, namely Marie Jeunesse and Canadian Catholic Outreach, which runs peer ministry programs in university campuses across Canada.
Rondeau, a long-term volunteer at WYD, had introduced herself to the Pope in English but then said that she came from Canada’s French-speaking province, Quebec. “I think it’s really sad that a francophone is not speaking in French,” the Pope told her.
She therefore proceeded to ask the Pope her questions in her native language, and he replied in French. His English is good but his French is better, Rondeau said.
The Pope was also interested in hearing about what is happening in Canada and North America.
The Pope “sort of” touched the topic of sex abuse in the Church in North America, said Rondeau. She reported that the Pope said: “What we need are priests and religious who are really involved and engaged in their relationship with Christ, that their vocation has a solid foundation in a relationship with Christ, and that their apostolate is lived out of love, out of the fruit of this relationship.”
The Pope desires that people committed to Christ spread the message of the Gospel with life with joy, she said. “Somehow I thought he was telling me what his expectation is of North America,” she added.
She asked the Pope about his childhood dreams. According to Rondeau, the Pope replied: “In Germany, we’re more rational, somehow, so I didn’t try to find out my feelings or ideas. I tried to figure out how to build the Church.
He also spoke about the difficult situation in Africa, both generally and for priests and religious to live their vocations and run social projects.
During the lunch, the Pope spoke only briefly about himself and about the experience of being elected to the pontificate. Rondeau said she thought the Pope to be very private and reserved, yet very welcoming.
She remarked on the way Pope Benedict greets large groups of people as he enters a room. Pope John Paul II had a particular way of greeting people with one hand, she said, but Pope Benedict puts both hands out in what she interprets as a gesture of openness and great welcome.
The Pope was happy to have had lunch with the young people and seemed to have wanted to stay longer, said Rondeau.
The other young people represented France, Ireland, Chile, Benin, Kongo, China, Germany, Slovenia, Australia and Palestine.