COLOGNE, Germany -- Hundreds of thousands of young people from more than 160 countries have been streaming to this picture book German city on the Rhine River to prepare for the 20th World Youth Day that opens tomorrow.
Each WYD has unique aspects, and this German version of what many have called "Catholic Olympics" will have many new dimensions. Perhaps the most significant is that the founder, father or chief patron of these mega gatherings will not be here.
Since Pope John Paul II's death April 2, many have wondered what WYD will be like. European newspapers and magazines are asking, "Can Benedict XVI do it?" or "Does Ratzinger have the charisma of Wojtyla to win over today's young people?"
There is no doubt that John Paul enjoyed amazing popularity among young Catholics throughout his 26-year pontificate. The strongest symbol of the importance he accorded to this connection is, without doubt, WYD.
His close, encouraging presence to young people will remain one his most significant contributions to the Church and to humanity. He broke through every barrier and wall that existed between old and young, the hierarchy and the faithful, the Church and the unchurched. In fact, through WYD, he gave the Gospel and the Vatican Council flesh and blood for young people.
It's not remarkable that John Paul saw his youthful friends as a metaphor of renewal and hope; what is remarkable is that young people also see and understand themselves this way.
One of the many things that struck me powerfully during our WYD in Canada three years ago was the simplicity and depth of John Paul's talks to young people. He told them that they are at the vanguard of history. They are not just contributing to a united world or a new civilization of love --they are architects and builders of that society and culture. No wonder why they listened so attentively to him!
There are few public figures that have believed so much in young people as the Polish pope and caused so much good to come from them.
One important fact must be kept in mind. John Paul's relationship with young people was not about him. It was about Jesus. He announced to them the beauty and youthfulness of the Christian message. Young people recognized in John Paul a credible witness to truth, hope and God. More than anything, young people need role models and witnesses.
Young people have welcomed the new pope, Benedict XVI, in the same way, because they see in him a teacher and a witness. They can sense beauty and truth at the core of the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's life. Many who work with me commented on this when he was elected pope.
They told me: "In John Paul we had an extraordinary gift that we cherished and loved. He was the father many of us never had and the grandfather we never knew.
"All we want in the next Pope is someone who knew and appreciated the value of that gift that was ours for our lifetime ... someone who understood how and why John Paul loved us and called us to do great things. In Pope Benedict we have someone we can trust and love. Because he was a friend of John Paul and he knew the value of the gift."
The new pope will need this WYD experience just as much as the young people need him for the event -- and for the future of the Church.