COLOGNE -- The eyes of the Christian world have been fixed on this Rhine River city as World Youth Day 2005 arrived. Nearly 410,000 young people from 190 countries packed Cologne and its surroundings for a follow-up to Toronto WYD 2002. "It's the most peaceful invasion of all time," declared the popular German newspaper Bild.
Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of this German archdiocese, presided over the splendid opening ceremonies of WYD last Tuesday afternoon in Cologne's RheinEnergie Stadium. "This is the first World Youth Day with two popes -- one watching from above (John Paul II) and the other taking part here below (Benedict XVI)," said the dynamic German cardinal.
"World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne is not just a purely Catholic event," he continued. "It concerns the whole world. Christ is not a Christian property agent -- he is the Lord of the world."
At the conclusion of the opening mass, German President Horst Koehler addressed the wild throng with words that thrilled me. "In the theme song from Toronto (WYD 2002), we hear 'Scatter the darkness when love becomes our way,' and 'together let us stand against the storm.' At World Youth Days, young people of different nationalities grow closer together. You meet one another.
"The result is a network that circles the entire globe when you return to your home countries. This is a network through which you can share with one another a network that strengthens the sense of belonging to a global community."
Pope Benedict joined us on Thursday and received a royal welcome from the hundreds of thousands of young Christians gathered here, as well as a first papal homecoming celebration from his fellow Germans. After a full day of meeting with seminarians, a lunch with young people and an historic meeting with Cologne's Jewish community on Friday, he received leaders of the Muslim community as well as heads of the Christian churches here in Martin Luther's homeland.
Benedict was to preside at a magnificent outdoor prayer vigil last night, as well as today's closing mass before an expected crowd of nearly 1 million people.
At the heart of Cologne's World Youth Day is the city's great Gothic Cathedral, which serves as the meeting point and prayer centre. Inside is a stunning Medieval reliquary believed to hold the relics of the three Magi (or kings) who were the first foreigners to visit the newborn Christ child in Bethlehem. These are the holy patrons of this year's WYD.
Though traditionally a wonderful Christmas story, young people of the world discovered this year that perhaps there is something deeper to the Magi story of Matthew's Gospel (2:1-12). In effect, Christmas became a moveable feast this summer.
At home in their distant, foreign lands, the three foreigners, most probably astrologers, had all the comforts of princely living, but something was missing -- they were restless and unsatisfied. At the centre of this story of striking contrasts lies a baby who is joy itself.
King Herod was afraid of this "great joy for all the people." In the end, the Magi went their own way, because they refused to be seduced by cynicism, because they allowed themselves to be surprised by this great joy. This can be seen not only the description of the times into which Jesus was born, but also our times.
Like the Magi of long ago who followed the light of a star amidst many challenges, young people who journeyed to Cologne made some powerful statements with their lives. Through their search, their questions, their departure, their wrong turns, their changes in direction, they hopefully met Christ and discovered that he is forever young and the Church is really alive.
We can only imagine the delight of the pope who watched this spectacle from above, and the joy of the new Pope who journeyed from Rome back to his homeland this past week to encourage the generation of John Paul II.