It's time to take stock of the unique experience that was World Youth Day 2005 in Germany last month. The cynics and the curious will ask: Will the event make any difference in how we celebrate and practice our faith? Was it worth the expense and effort? Could an elderly German Pope reach over one million young people who flocked to Cologne hoping to have another John Paul II moment? Did the young people listen?
Perhaps the deeper questions: Did the new Pope learn anything from this event? Did the former Cardinal Ratzinger pass the test in Cologne?
As the immediate past director of World Youth Day 2002 in Canada, I had the pleasure of traveling with Benedict on the papal boat, and then accompanying him on foot through the huge crowds up to Cologne's magnificent Gothic cathedral for the formal welcoming ceremony. Throughout the rather raucous afternoon, I watched Benedict's face up close. He seemed delighted, at times stunned at the outpouring of affection and joy for him, yet constantly gracious.
I wondered what was going through this very shy man's mind now that he was no longer Joseph the professor and guardian of the doctrine of the faith, but Benedict, the shepherd and pastor of the multitudes; successor of Peter, but also of the charismatic John Paul II.
When I was introduced to Pope Benedict as "the organizer of Toronto 2002," he took my hands and expressed many thanks. His radiant smile and piercing eyes were not those of a politician working the crowd, but of a pastor who knew the power of words, the importance of saying "thank you" and the significance of holding hands.
Benedict XVI read his addresses in Cologne with care, without rhetoric. He chose measured words, not desiring the immediate effect of applause, but long-term reflection. Some might have been disappointed by a seeming "lack of connection" with the young audience, but the majority of young people (who are very wise) adopted him as their Pope and shepherd.
Pope Benedict XVI exclaimed to the throngs of young Christians and the curious mixed in: "Here in Cologne we discover the joy of belonging to a family as vast as the world, including heaven and earth, the past, the present, the future. The Church can be criticized, because it contains both grain and weeds," he told them, but "it is actually consoling to realize that there are weeds in the Church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners."
While it may be too early to evaluate seriously Benedict's impact on young people, it was impressive to see how he addressed them. He did not bring up moral issues, preferring to simply share the joy of being a Christian. He invited his young friends to learn God's ways, but not by constructing "a private God" for ourselves -- there are "no private ways" in the Church. Young people must develop a "sensitivity to the needs of others" which "must be seen in our willingness to share," he said.
Like his beloved and unforgettable predecessor John Paul II, who was the father of World Youth Days, Benedict the professor has taught us an important lesson this summer: The more demanding he is, the more he will conquer minds and hearts.
What striking words from a 78-year-old man who showed the world and especially his German homeland that he is very much alive and still young at heart. Professor Ratzinger not only passed the test in Cologne. He did so brilliantly.