September 1, 2005
The night before the Pope came to Cologne, a BBC news commentator asked the question, “How will the new Pope be received in such a liberal country as Germany?” It was the wrong question. Already the streets were flooded with young people from 160 nations. Singing and dancing. Cheers and warm smiles. No language barriers. All of us had come to Cologne for the same reason. Faith. Belief in something that goes beyond what the world can offer.
So great were the crowds that, on Wednesday before the Pope’s arrival, 7,000 young people thronged the central station and it had to close down. 150 more trams the next day and 400 more the following day and the crowds remained. The press and crush of people on trams and trains and on the narrow streets made the theology of the Incarnation real!
On Thursday, August 18, the crowds got their first glimpse of our new Holy Father. The sun beamed brightly above. Thousands upon thousands lined the banks of the Rhine and waited. The bishops who accompanied the young people of their dioceses also waited. We were shuttled from bus to bus. Left standing for almost two hours under a highway, we ate a box lunch. Cardinals and bishops together. Like the young, we waited to show our support for our Holy Father. Eventually we boarded boats. Each boat bore the bishops and the young people from the same continent. An honor guard of the nations to welcome the Pope.
After the official greeting at Cologne/Bonn airport, the Pope boarded his boat for the trip on the Rhine. An appropriate entry into the city. Jesus took Peter and his companions from their work as a fisherman. “
I will make you fishers of men” (Mk 1:17), he promised. Benedict XVI is now called to ride the tides of our times and, up out of the chaos and confusion of our world, to catch others for Christ. In his opening remarks, the Holy Father said, “
To all of you I appeal. Open wide your hearts to God! Let yourselves be surprised by Christ.”
As our boat accompanied the Holy Father’s boat down the Rhine, I could not help thinking how surprised the Pope must be these days. Perhaps through his words, he was revealing something of his own feelings. He had planned retirement. God chose otherwise. Somewhat shy and reserved and now an instant superstar. As his boat gracefully headed to the Cathedral, the young people along either bank kept chanting, “Benedetto.” He is intelligent and wise and humble enough to know that all this enthusiasm, all this energy, was being directed to him in his role as the Vicar of Christ. The Pope embodies in his office the divine love of the Good Shepherd who prayed that we might all be one (cf. Jn 17:11). Here is what draws young people to this man. He makes real something that transcends the ordinary and lifts us up with hope.
At the end of the boat ride, the Pope went to the Cologne Cathedral. There, in Northern Europe’s largest Gothic Cathedral, he prayed before the relics of the magi. In fact and in legend, they lead us to love and worship the Lord. While the Pope was addressing the crowds in Roncalli square, our boats made the trip back to their landing points. Two bus rides later, we were left 1.5 kilometers from our hotel at 9 p.m. The bishops, somewhat exhausted, hoofed across the bridge and back to our hotel. There I met two adults from our pilgrim group. I went with them by tram to meet our young people at their hotel, as I did every night for prayer and a talk. Tired, hungry and eager to rest, I was awakened by the undaunted spirit and energy of our young people. How blessed we are in our young people.
Early Saturday morning, our young people began their flight from the city. To Marienfeld, 20 kilometers away. Some left as early as 7 a.m. They took public transportation. But the last 6 kilometers, they had to walk. They made sure that they arrived in time to claim their place on the wet grass and to wait for the Vigil with the Pope. By the time the Pope came in the evening, 800,000 young people were waiting. Long hours, but no time wasted. They talked and laughed and danced and sang. They prayed and became still and silent. Real conversations with each other and God. Sharing. Openness to others. All this happens when the routine is broken, when space is created. Closer to each other, much closer to God.
The Pope offered the young the challenge to make a difference in our world. He said, “
The Magi from the East are just the first in a long procession of men and women who have constantly tried to gaze upon God's star in their lives, going in search of the God who has drawn close to us and shows us the way…The saints… are the true reformers. Now I want to express this in an even more radical way: only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come, the definitive way to change the world.”
On Sunday morning, the numbers swelled to over a million. Over 4,000 bishops and priests joined with the young in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Holy Father’s serene and calm presence helped us place ourselves in God’s presence. And the place was transformed. The Pope addressed the world’s desire to be other than it is. He reminded us of the centrality of the Eucharist as God’s way to transform the world. He said, “
Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world: violence is transformed into love, and death into life…
By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, [Jesus] anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart, and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence - the Crucifixion - from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation which was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all (cf. I Cor 15:28).”
The Mass ended. Slowly the crowds dispersed. A renewed sense of the need for holiness and the importance of Eucharist, especially on the Lord’s Day, followed the young people on their return home. The street sweepers cleaned the field and the city. And the crowds were gone. But not the legacy. From August 16-21, the ancient city of Cologne had become the youngest city in the world. And more than that—a new star for those who, like the magi, seek the Lord.