By JOHN THAVIS
Catholic News Service
COLOGNE, Germany (CNS) – On a trip he inherited from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI stepped into the world spotlight and outlined the priorities and the style of his emerging papacy.
To young people gathered for World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, the pope brought an intensely spiritual message during his Aug. 18-21 visit, telling them that living their faith and imitating the saints were the only ways to transform the world.
That seemed to make a connection with many young people in Cologne. In the words of one young U.S. pilgrim, youths came for religious inspiration, and they got it.
To bishops in his native country, where secularism has put down deep roots, he called for new efforts to stem the decline in church influence, but said it must be done without “watering down” the Gospel.
That was a point he echoed in remarks to civil authorities, reminding them that Germany, in the heart of Europe, remained “indelibly” marked by Christian traditions that are still valid today. The pope’s comments underscored what is shaping up as a primary goal of his papacy, re-evangelizing Europe.
On the dialogue front, Pope Benedict made Pope John Paul II’s agenda his own — but with a few different points of emphasis.
In a historic visit to Cologne’s synagogue, the pope eloquently highlighted the common religious heritage shared by Christians and Jews. He also condemned the Holocaust, but without revisiting the church’s self-criticism on the issue; he blamed Nazi ideology on “neopaganism” and stayed away from the question of the moral failures of German Christians.
To Muslims, he delivered an unusually tough condemnation of terrorism, stressing the need for Islamic leaders to educate their own youths in tolerance.
Pope John Paul condemned terrorism many times, too. But the late pope also said it should “never be forgotten that situations of oppression and exclusion are often at the source of violence and terrorism” — something not mentioned in Pope Benedict’s speech.
In the land that gave birth to the Reformation, the pope’s comments to Protestant and Orthodox leaders were highly anticipated. His audience was pleased at three things he said: openness to a “unity in multiplicity” approach, flexibility on the future of papal ministry and, above all, his renewed pledge to make ecumenism a real priority of his papacy.
But the pope also used language to indicate that an ecumenical leap was not imminent. He counseled patience and realism and emphasized that “there can be no dialogue at the expense of truth.”
And he introduced a theme he is likely to develop further in his pontificate: that Christian churches today need to offer a much more united voice on modern ethical issues.
Beyond the finely tuned positions in his speeches, Pope Benedict’s way of being pope also took shape more clearly in Germany. Most striking was his determination to avoid personalizing the papacy — in contrast, many would say, with his predecessor.
The examples were obvious. In his meeting with Jews, he never once spoke about his personal experiences in wartime Germany. His own influence at the Second Vatican Council went unmentioned by the pope — though not by his dialogue partners in Cologne.
With seminarians and priests, he listened carefully to personal stories of their vocational calling, without describing his own.
In none of his appearances with young people did he reminisce about his own youth. When one girl asked him if he had any dreams as a child, he reflected and said he probably did not analyze his feelings much at that age.
The 78-year-old pope also took a serious approach to the World Youth Day encounters. Gone were the foot-tapping, the arm-waving and the ironic one-liners that Pope John Paul would employ to delight his younger crowds.
Instead, Pope Benedict protected the religious tone of each meeting, putting his fingers to his lips when the inevitable chanting of his name would begin. By the end of the weekend, the chanting had lessened considerably.
The young people seemed to respect his wishes and accept him on his terms, recognizing that public charisma is not everything. The dozen who had lunch with him were unanimously impressed with his kindness, his intelligence and, above all, his personal interest in their lives.
The pope’s spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said during the trip that if Pope John Paul often expressed himself in gestures Pope Benedict is giving the church “a pontificate of concepts and of words.”
The words were not always easy in Cologne. At his closing sermon, for example, the pope spoke about the different nuances of the word “adoration” in Greek and Latin — an explication that may have escaped all but the gifted listener.
In another passage, he creatively described the series of transformations set off by the Eucharist as an “intimate explosion” akin to nuclear fission.
The pope’s talks were challenging minilessons in the basics of the faith. Did his young audience get it?
“I think young people are underestimated these days,” said Jim Nolan, president of a U.S. Catholic student group, Crossroads, which sponsored a pro-life walk by 40 young people to World Youth Day.
“I think they’re more than capable of handling (the pope’s message), and I think they need those foundational aspects of our faith to be reaffirmed. I believe they welcome it,” he said.
The pope seemed to feel the same way. Shortly before leaving Germany, he told the country’s bishops that young people “are not looking for a church that panders to youth” but one that challenges them to be completely open to Christ.
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