COLOGNE, Germany — Pope Benedict XVI returns home this week -- and Germany is warmly embracing its most famous son even as his mission of revitalizing the Roman Catholic Church faces an uncertain future.
"The pope is coming home,” the headline of the German national newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, declared earlier this week.
“Benedikt Superstar” blared Germany's FOCUS magazine with the smiling German pope on its cover.
For the second time this year, Pope Benedict XVI is leading the news on German radio and television stations in anticipation of his arrival in Cologne on Thursday to celebrate World Youth Day with nearly one million pilgrims from 193 nations.
On his first foreign trip as pope, Benedict will be closely watched to see how he performs under the glare of the media and how he is received by the youth of the world that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II so successfully courted.
Street party begins
The five-day Catholic youth festival, inaugurated in 1984 by Pope John Paul II, started on Tuesday and will culminate in a Mass with the pope on Sunday.
Adolescents from countries all over the world have already begun filling the streets of Cologne.
Thousands of young pilgrims in colorful outfits gathered in the square and on the steps below the Cologne Cathedral, Germany's largest church, singing, dancing and performing "a human wave,” as a young man whizzed by with a large World Youth Day flag.
The pilgrims were greeted by a gigantic poster, showing a smiling, waving Pope Benedict, mounted to a building facade in the city center.
Nearly 27,000 volunteers signed up to help organizers accommodate the guests. Schools and gyms have been turned into dormitories, and more than 90,000 family homes in the region have offered beds to foreign pilgrims.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, more than 24,000 pilgrims and 72 bishops are traveling to Cologne from the United States alone.
In total, the costs for the event are expected to exceed $120 million — the money for the event coming from the Catholic Church, pilgrims, sponsors, and a single contribution from the German government.
Benedict’s performance on his first official trip abroad as pope will be closely watched. Many are anxious to see if Benedict, who is often described as a very introverted, conservative theologian, will connect with young people the way his predecessor John Paul II did.
"Germans are traditionally very critical toward the church," Stefan Pies, a team leader for pilgrims groups at World Youth Day said.
"Yet, I think that the love for the pope, the enthusiasm of being a Christian, will spill over from other nationalities during World Youth Day," he said.
Benedict’s critics wonder if he will be able to revitalize a church that appears out of touch to many young people, and whether he will address some of the hot-button issues that have caused a rift, including contraception and homosexuality.
"It is both moral and essential that the Catholic Church makes a stand for our lives and our safety by lifting this ban on condoms to prevent the spread of the pandemic," Tobias Raschke, a member of the group Catholics for a Free Choice, told reporters.
The pope has not made any comments on those controversial subjects yet, but he has made his appeal to young people clear.
"I want to show the youth of the world that it is wonderful to be a Christian. Because the idea that is being spread is that Christians should observe an immense number of commandments and prohibitions, laws which have to be followed," said the pope in an interview on Vatican Radio.
"The young people want to discover life themselves and do not want to be lectured [on life] by others," Benedict siad.
Not pope mania, yet
Surely, many of the young pilgrims have come to Cologne to celebrate a true "Christian gathering,” following the World Youth Day motto, "We have come to adore HIM,” referring to Jesus Christ.
But, a great number of Germans who will flock into the city over the next days are believed to be coming to Cologne for one purpose only: to get a glimpse of the pope.
"It is awesome to have a German pope, and especially because he is from Bavaria. We just had to come to see him," said Stefanie Gegg, 18, who also hails from the pope’s home state.
A recent poll conducted by the German research institute “Infratest dimap” showed that a third of Germans believe that young people are only traveling to Cologne to see the pope, while 43 percent of those polled said the pilgrims were searching for a bonding experience and entertainment.
Even though Benedict's visit to Germany is focused on World Youth Day, he also hopes to use it as an opportunity to bridge some gaps.
His trip will be a test to interfaith relations when the pope visits a local synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis and rebuilt in the 1950s, and when he addresses Muslim leaders at the Cologne archdiocese headquarters.
According to Benedict's spokesman, the pope is placing great importance on these Cologne meetings, calling them a "very strong signal" of his desire for dialogue.
Benedict also wants to send out a message to his own countrymen.
In meetings with Protestant leaders, he is expected to address the ongoing dialog between Germany's two main churches. With 25 million Protestants, 31 percent of all Germans, and 26 million Catholics, 32 percent of the population, Germany's Christians are still divided on many issues.
The pope has set out to reinvigorate faith throughout Europe and could start his mission in Germany, where the former communist regime has left a large number of "faithless" people in the eastern part of the country.
In the former communist East Germany, religion was tolerated, but not supported by the government. Religious education was non-existent in schools and only small groups of the population regularly visited churches.
Yet, the churches were the breeding ground for East Germany's peaceful revolution in 1989.
Now, "re-Christianizing" the eastern part of the country is of great importance to the new pope.
‘We are pope’
On Tuesday, Germany's leading tabloid newspaper BILD distributed 500,000 red buttons with the slogan "We are pope" among the pilgrims in Cologne — using on the same catchy headline that covered the entire front page of the mass circulation paper when Cardinal Ratzinger became Benedict XVI in April.
At that time, many Germans were simply "surprised.”
"First I thought he is a very grim looking man, our new pope, but I guess you should not judge a book by its cover," said Benedikt Lochmaier, a 17-year-old student from southern Germany.
"But now, I can't wait to see him," added the youth who came to Cologne with a Catholic youth group.
Now, four months after Benedict's election, a large number of Germans, and not only those of Catholic faith, will greet "their" pope with a warm welcome and a sense of pride.
Andy Eckardt is a NBC News producer based in Germany. He will be covering World Youth Day in Cologne.