Pope Benedict XVI returned home on Sunday from a four-day visit to his native Germany, his first international trip since his election in April.
The Pope returned to Rome’s Ciampino airport after his trip, which ended with an open-air Mass at which 1 million people turned out to see him urge the church’s next generation to make wise use of the freedom God has given them.
The Mass capped a four-day trip that saw Benedict hold two important interfaith meetings: a synagogue visit in which he drew applause for urging better relations between Christians and Jews, and a frank meeting with Muslim leaders in which he condemned terrorism.
The sun broke through the thick, gray clouds as Benedict spoke from a raised altar above a crowd that seemed to stretch on forever across the Marienfeld, or Mary’s Field, outside the western Germany city of Cologne.
“Freedom is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy, but rather about living by the measure of truth and goodness so that we ourselves can become true and good,” he said.
Subdued style wins crowd over
During Benedict’s visit to the church’s World Youth Day festival, the German-born pope showed a public style more subdued than that of his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II, who died April 2.
Benedict, who was elected April 19, avoided some of John Paul’s exuberant habits, such as kissing the ground on arrival and swaying to the music during public appearances. He read his speeches in a soft voice that was sometimes inaudible to the crowd, smiled shyly and waved as if in amazement at all the attention.
The faithful, however, seemed to love him all the more for his reticent ways and cheered him wildly every time he appeared in public.
He found warm applause during his visit to Cologne’s synagogue, where he warned of rising anti-Semitism and stressed the shared inheritance of Jews and Christians. It was only the second papal visit to a Jewish house of worship, after John Paul’s groundbreaking visit to a Rome synagogue in 1986.
His remarks to Muslims, while friendly, were blunter, as he condemned the “cruel fanaticism” of terrorism and stressed Muslim elders’ responsibility to educate the younger generation in the ways of peace.
He differed from his predecessor by not stressing the church’s teaching against premarital sex and condom use, two themes frequently mentioned by John Paul to young people but missing from Benedict’s speeches and sermons at the festival — even though he agrees completely with John Paul’s conservative views on the topic. He also did not commit to attending the next World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, in 2008.
John Paul, who founded World Youth Day in 1984, would always end the festival by promising to attend the next one.
Europe’s Christian roots
The trip also reflected Benedict’s effort to re-evangelize a secular Europe that he says must return to its Christian roots, a frequent theme in his writings and speeches.
He expressed serious concern on that topic in remarks to German bishops.
“Some young Germans, especially in the East, have never had a personal encounter with the Good News of Jesus Christ,” he said.
“Even in traditionally Catholic areas, the teaching of religion and catechesis do not always manage to forge lasting bonds between young people and the church community.”
In his homily Sunday, he said there is a “strange forgetfulness of God,” while at same time the sense of frustration and dissatisfaction has led to a “new explosion of religion.”
“I have no wish to discredit all the manifestations of this phenomenon. There may be sincere joy in the discovery,” he said. “Yet, if it is pushed too far, religion becomes almost a consumer product. People choose what they like, and some are even able to make a profit from it.
“But religion constructed on a ’do-it-youself’ basis cannot ultimately help us. Help people to discover the true star which points out the way to us: Jesus Christ.”
He urged young people to take the time to regularly attend Sunday Mass.
“If you make the effort, you will realize that this is what gives a proper focus to your free time,” he said.
The crowds listened intently as he spoke in German, English, Italian and French.
Two World Youth Day volunteers were held back by security guards as they tried to touch the pope while he was reading a greeting in several different languages. One succeeded in touching the elbow of the pope, who did not interrupt his greeting.
Fake bomb discovered
Police found what appeared to be a fake bomb near the highway along which the pope was to travel. They said he was not in danger at any time.
The concluding service was an upbeat celebration of the multinational crowd in attendance, accompanied by South American zamponas and charangos, an Indian sitar, African drums, and an Australian didgeridoo.
The people, many of whom stayed out all night sleeping on the ground to be able to attend, cheered as the pope arrived in his tall, glassed-in popemobile. He got out wearing a golden miter, and ascended to the altar platform with more than 4,000 priests and bishops present to assist in the service.
Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the archbishop of Cologne, paid tribute to the huge crowd and its devotion to the new pope. “You belong to the youth,” he said, “and the youth belongs to you.”