Benedict XVI arrived Thursday in his native Germany to cheers from youthful pilgrims on his first foreign trip as pope, a journey that will emphasize outreach to Jews and Muslims and evangelizing a Europe that has drifted from its Christian heritage.
Greeted by shouts of “Benedict, Benedict” from young people attending World Youth Day in Cologne, Benedict looked ahead to his visit to the city’s synagogue, rebuilt after being destroyed by the Nazis, and to a meeting with Muslim leaders.
“Visiting a synagogue is close to my heart, and also the greeting of members of the Islamic community,” he said, gusts of wind ruffling his white garments and silver hair.
“These are meetings to proceed more intensively on the way of dialogue in the common effort to build a just and brotherly future,” he said. “We all know how very important it is to seek this path.”
Benedict landed to a subdued arrival, compared to some of the greetings received by his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II. He skipped John Paul’s custom of kissing the ground, and only a few hundred enthusiastic admirers were brought to the airport.
Thousands more, however, cheered as they watched on a large television screen in front of Cologne’s famed cathedral, erupting in shouts as his plane landed. More than 400,000 pilgrims registered ahead of time, organizers said, and up to 1 million people are expected for an open-air Mass by Benedict on Sunday.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Horst Koehler greeted Benedict on the red carpet as he descended from the plane, which had German and Vatican flags hanging from the cockpit windows.
It is the first homecoming to his native country for Benedict since his April 19 election. He was born in Marktl Am Inn in the state of Bavaria and served as archbishop of Munich.
John Paul on people's minds
Younger Roman Catholics have known only one pope — John Paul, who died April 2 after serving 27 years — and many are curious to see how his successor, a shy former theology professor and Vatican doctrine official, will connect with the faithful at the festival.
John Paul, who founded World Youth Day as a way to evangelize young people, was still very much on people’s minds, especially among those who were at his last World Youth Day appearance two years ago in Toronto. Many made their plans to come while John Paul was still alive and had hoped to see him.
Benedict paid tribute to his “great and beloved predecessor” and said he was thankful to be able to address such a throng of young people.
“The meeting of so many young people with the successor of Peter is a sign of the vitality of the church,” he said. St. Peter is considered the first pope by Catholics.
Javier Ayala from Santiago, Chile, began camping out at 2 a.m. Thursday to be first in line for the security check to enter the cathedral square for Benedict’s address.
“We want to welcome the pope. We want him to feel we care as much about him as we did about John Paul II,” said Ayala, 19.
Peter Jauregui, 20, from Escondido, Calif., said: “I think John Paul set a great example. The new pope, I hope, will follow in his footsteps. I am hoping to see that he does.”