World Youth Day Coverage
Posted Saturday, August 20, 2005 at 1:09 p.m. CDT

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Coverage of World Youth Day exclusively by NCR

Correspondent's Notebook #3:
Cardinal Pell sums up youth day message; Aussies prepare for 2008; Sant'Egidio community in Cologne; Contemplating WYD without a pope; Synagogue visit reaction

NCR Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr. is in Cologne, Germany. will post daily reports from World Youth Day through Aug. 21. Bookmark this page or check back with to read more coverage of this international Catholic event.

John L. Allen Jr.


Cologne, Germany

When Pope Benedict XVI announces tomorrow that the next World Youth Day will be held in Sydney, Australia, in July 2008, the man of the hour will be Cardinal George Pell of Sydney -- the driving force and architect of the event.

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Pell can be something of a polarizing figure, especially in laid-back Australia, with his unapologetic commitment to traditional Catholic teaching and practice. The motto on his coat of arms is "Be Not Afraid," and it characterizes him well. Pell is unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom and to practice plain speech when he thinks the culture is off-track.

I sat down with Pell, who has emerged in recent years as a major force in English-speaking Catholicism, this morning at his Cologne hotel.

What's his judgment on how Benedict XVI, his friend and undoubtedly his candidate in the April conclave, is doing so far on a platform designed for Pope John Paul II?

"I think he's off and running, and running well," Pell said. "Our kids are delighted with his friendliness, his personality. I think his reception on the Rhine the other day demonstrated that."

There are roughly 2,200 Australian youth in Cologne.

Pell recalled the events in Rome after the death of John Paul, including then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's memorable homily at the April 8 funeral Mass.

"It was obvious that he can speak, with success, to great crowds of people," Pell said.

In fact, though Pell did not make the point, several cardinals said after the fact the funeral Mass was an important factor in conclave politics, because it showed that Ratzinger could play on the elevated stage that John Paul II had erected.

Read more NCR coverage of World Youth Day
  • Report #4: Do-it-yourself religion 'cannot ultimately help us,' pope tells youth. Posted Aug. 21, 12:23 p.m.
  • Correspondent's Notebook #4: WYD 'rehabilitates' Joseph Ratzinger; Pope and teacher; Meeting with seminarians; Diversity among youth; WYD liturgical styles; Some ripples of dissent. Posted Aug. 21, 12:23 p.m.
  • Report #3: Benedict uses meeting with Muslims to condemn terrorism. Posted Aug. 20, 12:54 p.m. Updated at 4:56 p.m.
  • Correspondent's Notebook #3: Cardinal Pell sums up youth day message; Aussies prepare for 2008; Sant'Egidio community in Cologne; Contemplating WYD without a pope; Synagogue visit reaction. Posted Aug. 20, 12:54 p.m.
  • Report #2: Benedict acknowledges progress, challenges in Catholic-Jewish relations; Also meets with Catholic seminarians, German Protestants. Posted Aug. 19, 12:19 p.m.
  • Correspondent's Notebook #2: The pope at the synagogue; Assessing Benedict so far; The Magi pilgrims; On the papal plane; Some snags in logistics. Posted Aug. 19, 12:19 p.m.
  • Report #1: Picking up where John Paul II left off. Posted Aug. 18, 2:35 p.m.
  • Correspondent's Notebook #1: Who attends World Youth Day?; Benedict arrives; Condolences to Taizé; WYD trivia and Americans in Cologne; Visa problems; Security issues; Comic relief. Posted Aug. 18, 2:35 p.m.
  • At the same time, Pell conceded that Benedict XVI does not have the populist charisma of John Paul II. The point came up when I asked him if he was at all concerned that mega-events such as World Youth Day create a "cult of personality" around the pope.

    "That concern is much less than it was, because the present pope has nothing like the following of the previous one," he said.

    "John Paul II was very well aware of the risks" of a cult of personality, Pell said. "He worked resolutely so that Christ would be at the center of it. Our efforts have to be Christo-centric."

    I asked Pell to sum up Benedict's message in Cologne.

    "He's affirming the Christian message, the Catholic package, so to speak," he said.

    Pell said doing so is perhaps especially important for youth from a highly secularized culture such as Australia.

    "The substantial majority of Australian youth have no clear religious identity, and no clear understanding of our teachings," he said. "World Youth Day shows that we have something to offer that may be helpful."

    I asked Pell why he pushed so hard for World Youth Day to come to Sydney.

    "To strengthen the faith of young Australian Catholics," he said. "Increasing numbers of youth will have burnt their fingers on what we might call, somewhat provocatively, 'neo-pagan alternatives,' and they're looking for something."

    "At World Youth Day, you see tens of thousands of young, normal, happy Christians, and that can't help but give young people pause for thought."

    Pell said that in the first place, he sees the Sydney World Youth Day as an offering to the youth of his region.

    "We have proposed putting a special emphasis on getting people from Oceania," he said.

    Pell noted that this will be the first time that a World Youth Day has been held in Oceania. Cost and distance often limit the number of young people from Oceania that can attend the event in Europe or North America. Because it's so far away, it also tends not to draw much media coverage in the Australian press, limiting its boomerang effect as a tool of evangelization.

    At the same time, Pell stressed that he doesn't conceive of the Sydney World Youth Day as exclusively an intra-Australian event.

    "People coming from other parts of the world will have their faith strengthened too," he said.

    Pell, the former archbishop of Melbourne, said he was "converted" to World Youth Day after traveling with a group of 200 Melbourne pilgrims through the Holy Land on their way to the World Youth Day in Rome in 2000.

    "I saw the wave of conversions that followed," he said. "I was very impressed with that."

    As for the logistics of the event, Pell told me that the cost of travel to and from Australia from Europe or the United States is 2,000 Australian dollars -- roughly US$1500. Obviously, he pointed out, much will depend on how the Australian dollar fares against the Euro and the American dollar between now and 2008.

    Pell estimated that the total cost of World Youth Day in Sydney will be between 50 and 60 million Australian dollars, roughly US$37-45 million. That's just about one-third of the estimated US$121 million the Germans are spending on Cologne.

    How can he do it for so much less?

    "Cologne's a small city, and the events are spread over three venues," he said. "That meant they had to stage three opening Masses, whereas we'll only have one. We have all the facilities from the Sydney Olympics in 2000, which are more than adequate for our needs."

    Pell said the city of Sydney has already agreed to commit the Olympic facilities for the event.

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    The bottom line, Pell said, is that he wanted World Youth Day in Sydney because it works.

    "I don't just mean in a happy-clappy kind of way," he said. "From speaking with our own pilgrims, seeing kids from all over the world in prayer, listening to them ask deep questions during the catechetical sessions, it's clear that this event is strengthening the faith of a lot of young people."

    Sydney's World Youth Day will be held July 15-20, 2008. Discussions are currently underway between local organizers and the Pontifical Council for the Laity about a theme.

    There was some discussion about whether the Sydney edition of World Youth Day should be held in January or June/July, since July is winter in Australia. In the end, however, the feeling was that many pilgrims from other parts of the world might be discouraged from coming if the event was held during their winter, when getting away, especially over such a long distance, is much more difficult.

    An official of the Sydney archdiocese said winter there is fairly mild, with some sunshine and relatively cool, but not freezing, temperatures.

    * * *

    I also spoke today with Sandra Nori, the tourism minister for Sydney and its surrounding state, New South Wales. Nori is in Cologne this week watching how the Germans do things, in preparation for things to come.

    Nori told me that her office has been working with the Sydney archdiocese since 2003 to prepare the bid for World Youth Day, and she was part of a five-member team that made Sydney's presentation to the Pontifical Council for the Laity. She said that there's a sense in which World Youth Day is like the Olympic games from a logistical point of view -- venue management, people movement, and so on.

    New South Wales, Nori said, has committed to invest 20 million Australian dollars, roughly US$15 million. Part of that amount, she said, is "in value and kind," in logistical support and services. The federal government will also contribute, in addition to the registration fees from participants, financing from the church, and corporate sponsorship.

    Why is the state gung-ho about World Youth Day?

    "We see it as our mission to support major public events, even if they represent a more narrow sector of society," Nori said. "After all, not everyone is a fan of the Olympics. We also support motor racing, and that's not everyone's cup of tea."

    Second, Nori said, "if the event is going to go ahead, it's in the interests of the city and the state to ensure that it be done properly."

    Nori said she expects at least 100,000 young people to attend the Sydney event from other countries, and perhaps many more. Research shows, she said, that Australia is a "highly aspirational destination."

    "Many young people will be pulled here because as they see it, it will be their only chance to do something they see as quite desirable." Moreover, she said, there will be "pre- and post-touring," in addition to repeat business later in life if these young people have positive experiences of Australia at World Youth Day.

    I asked Nori what she had learned from watching the Germans.

    First, she said, Sydney is much bigger than Cologne -- 4 million to 800,000. That means events will not have to spread out over several localities.

    Second, because Australia is more difficult to reach, few people will just "show up" from overseas. The vast majority of participants will register and work out visa problems well in advance.

    As the tourism minister, Nori is concerned that some people will be discouraged from coming to Sydney because of fears about the costs of travel. She insisted that it's not as expensive as people think, and that she's optimistic airlines will cooperate in offering special fares. Further, she pointed out, if current exchange rates hold, Europeans, Americans and especially the English will find that everything's cheaper than back home -- from hamburgers to hotel rooms.

    "They'll make a killing," she said.

    Finally, I pressed Nori for the bottom line: How much does she think Sydney will benefit in terms of the economic effect of World Youth Day?

    She said that her office employs a formula to generate such estimates, and allowing for certain unique features of World Youth Day, such as the fact that many youth will stay with families rather than hotels, she believes the city and state will make back its investment at a rate of at least 3-1, and perhaps as much as 5-1. That means she expects a boom in terms of hotels, restaurants, shops, and so on of at least $45 million in U.S. dollars, up to $75 million.

    * * *

    World Youth Day tends to draw a galaxy of stars in the Catholic firmament. On Saturday, returning to my hotel, I bumped into Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Sant'Egidio community.

    I asked Riccardi for his verdict on how Benedict XVI is doing so far.

    "It seems to me a good debut," he said. "He's speaking from the heart, and from his wisdom. He comes across as humble and human."

    "He's offering the youth a plan for life, but he's not imposing it on them," Riccardi said. "He's proposing it to them."

    In effect, Riccardi said, what Benedict XVI has done in Cologne amounts to a triptych. One panel is devoted to youth, another to the Jews, and a third to Muslims (See Report #3 for Aug. 20).

    Given that Sant'Egidio has long been committed to dialogue with both Jews and Muslims, I was especially interested in Riccardi's take on Friday's visit to the synagogue.

    "First, I thought his call that we reformulate together our faith, re-speak it together, was very important," Riccardi said.

    "Second, it was important that the pope talked not just about the past, but about the future. Sometimes we can get locked in debates about the past that make it difficult for us to move forward together in the future," he said.

    On the subject of Sydney as the host of the next World Youth Day, Riccardi said it will probably change a bit the nature of the event. Rather than being a truly international event, it will be "primarily local," he said, "with representatives of youth from around the world."

    * * *

    Is a World Youth Day without the pope thinkable?

    In various forms, this question seems to hover around the edges of the 2005 edition of World Youth Day in Cologne, the first without the event's founder and longtime star attraction, Pope John Paul II. While by most accounts the performance of his successor, Benedict XVI, has exceeded expectations, some longtime veterans of the planning and execution of World Youth Days think in the future, gatherings involving the pope could become less frequent.

    So far, this is a matter of speculation and reading of the tea-leaves, rather than a firm decision. The next World Youth Day is three years away, leaving Benedict XVI and others involved in the planning plenty of time to ponder the alternatives.

    Yet there are a variety of factors that lead to this sort of reflection.

    In speaking to one prominent archbishop yesterday, I asked him if there was concern about turnout for the new World Youth Day, especially given that Sydney, Australia, is a long way for many people to travel. What kind of numbers, I asked, should we expect?

    "It depends on whether the pope goes," he said.

    Pressing him on the point, he said that, for one thing, Benedict XVI will be 81 years old in July 2008, and a transcontinental journey of that length could be hard on an older man.

    For another, this archbishop said, Benedict XVI is not a man attracted to the rock-star dimensions of the papacy. Though he obviously sees the formation of youth as a priority, he may not regard the sort of scene that unfolded Thursday afternoon, with the pope standing in the bow of a ship sailing to thunderous applause up and down the Rhine River as the best or only way to go about it.

    There's also the risk of confusion between World Youth Day, and an apostolic voyage of the pope, at least in terms of focus, and perhaps especially with the press. In Cologne, for example, on Friday the pope's visit to the synagogue competed with the young pilgrims as the day's main story, as did his strong language on terrorism with the Muslims on Saturday. (See Report #3 Aug. 20) In that sense, the presence of the pope is a double-edged sword -- it draws attention, but not always to what organizers of World Youth Day might want.

    This is a much easier argument to make in the abstract, of course, when you don't actually face the responsibility of organizing a World Youth Day, and feel pressure to galvanize the largest turnout possible in order for the event to have the desired impact in the culture.

    Pell, for example, told me that the presence of the pope is "almost essential."

    "A lot of Catholic kids will come simply to be able to say that they've seen the pope," he said. "It's not just the individual personality, but respect for the office."

    "We could do it without the pope," he said, "but it will be much easier with him. I think many young people would be greatly disappointed if he doesn't come."

    Nori agreed that young people would be disappointed, but was more optimistic about the outcome if Benedict XVI does not make it.

    "People were signing up for Cologne even when John Paul II was in very poor health," she said. "I don't see this as a huge factor. World Youth Day is a maturing event in the global context, and it will get more and more focus in coming years."

    I had dinner Friday with a couple of veteran youth ministers, people who have been involved at senior levels in the planning and organization of several World Youth Days, and their feeling was that while the pope is a critical draw for many young people, his presence is not the essence of the event. From their point of view, the core of World Youth Day is to connect faithful young Catholics with other people like themselves from all over the world, and to model Catholic "best practices" -- to show them how to organize moving liturgies, successful catechetical sessions, and attractive experiences of prayer and devotion in both sacred and secular spaces. If these are the event's aims, they believe, the pope is something akin to the cherry on top of the ice cream -- a wonderful way of capping the experience, but not the heart of the matter.

    I asked Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, for example, the chief organizer of World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, if the presence of the pope is essential for World Youth Day.

    "It's not," he said. "We're at a different moment now. John Paul II was essential to get this started, but World Youth Day is now seen as an essential pastoral tool for the evangelization of youth. Whether the pope is there or not, is not the question."

    "A boat ride down the Rhine as a beautiful photo opportunity is not the point," he said. "What we have to ask is, are we leading young people to an encounter with Jesus Christ?"

    Rosica said he believes there's a need for a "serious evaluation" of the purpose and methods of World Youth Day, arguing that in a sense the event has become a victim of its own success. Because it is the premier Catholic gathering in the world, "everyone wants a piece of the action." The result, Rosica said, is a proliferation of events and attractions that can threaten its core objectives.

    Rosica said he could anticipate a future in which youth gatherings with the pope are held less frequently, perhaps every five years, with large gatherings held by continent in the interim.

    There is at least one model for a successful Catholic youth summit that did not involve the pope: the Continental Meeting of Youth held in Santiago, Chile, from Oct. 6-11, 1998, which drew more than a half-million Catholic young people from North, Central and South America together for a week-long experience of service, catechesis and prayer. Though there was hope initially that the pope might attend, it was clear several months in advance that it was not going to happen, and yet the event drew large, enthusiastic crowds anyway.

    "That was the trial balloon," Rosica said of the event in Chile.

    Pell, however, was skeptical that the summit in Santiago amounts to a model for the rest of the world.

    "In the English-speaking world, with the exception of Ireland and a couple of other places, Catholics are a minority," he said. "Catholic culture is much stronger in Latin America. They can do things that we have to work much harder on."

    Riccardi, whose Sant'Egidio community is known for its success in attracting a following among young Catholics, said he felt World Youth Day could be staged successfully without the physical presence of the pope.

    "Brother Roger Schutz did a kind of World Youth Day without the pope," he said. Schutz was the founder of the Taizé Community in France, and was killed just before the Cologne event opened. Tens of thousands of young people come on pilgrimage from around the world every year to Taizé.

    "In effect, we did this last Easter without the pope," Riccardi said, referring to the poor health of John Paul II that prevented him from taking part in most events.

    "Ratzinger is convinced of the necessity of the role of the pope as the successor of Peter," Riccardi said. "But he's not excessive about it."

    What about the pope's star quality?

    "Youth today love the stars," he said. "But with the silence of John Paul II in recent years, we've become accustomed to having fewer stars."

    If part of the point of World Youth Day is to generate media attention in the church's message, experience seems to prove Pell's point. A Lexis-Nexis search of English language media for October 1998 showed virtually no coverage for the Santiago summit, despite the impressive turnout of 500,000 youth and the presence of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's Secretary of State (and a former nuncio to Chile during the critical Pinochet years).

    I conducted an informal survey of my colleagues in the secular press, representing major news agencies, newspapers, and television networks. I asked them, "If World Youth Day in Cologne had played out exactly as it has, with the same attendance, the same events, the same gathering of bishops and cardinals, and so on, but without the pope, would you be here?"

    Almost to a person, they said no. They added that local correspondents might cover part of the event, but all agreed that the interest of the mainstream secular media would be greatly reduced.

    Hence the dilemma facing World Youth Day seems to be, how to exploit the charisma and visibility of the papacy without allowing it to swamp everything else organizers hope to accomplish.

    "If this has become a monster that we can't control, the question to ask is, how do we recapture the original vision of John Paul II, in all its simplicity?" Rosica said.

    * * *

    Obviously, the encounter with the pope is in many ways the heart of the World Youth Day experience. It is the culminating event, with a Saturday vigil, which usually involves sleeping overnight on the field where the Mass will be celebrated, and then the Mass itself Sunday morning.

    Yet in asking young participants from around the world about what they take away, what has truly shaped their imagination and life of faith, the pope often emerges as only one of several factors, and in at least some cases not necessarily the most decisive.

    Consider Matthew Dubeau, 24, of Port Angeles, Washington, whom I met Friday morning outside one of the catechetical sessions. He was in the process of disassembling a large portable flagpole he had been using to port around the Stars-and-Stripes, so he could enter the church.

    What impression, I asked him, did the pope make on him Thursday on the Rhine?

    Dubeau reflected a moment, and then said: "He was shorter than I thought."

    The point is not that Dubeau was unimpressed with pope's presence, or uninterested in what he had to say. It's rather that, like many World Youth Day participants, he was far away, couldn't hear well, and exhausted from other activities.

    So, what has struck him about the WYD experience?

    "I come from an area without many Catholics," he said. "It's always good to be reminded that although we may be a minority, there are an awful lot of us. It makes you more excited, ready to get involved with things."

    Deedee Gonzales, 18, from the same area, agreed.

    "Meeting other Catholic youth from all over the world makes you want to be more dedicated," she said. "You want to go to church more, to pray more."

    How important is the pope to all that?

    "Of course I want to see the pope," Gonzales said. "But even if that didn't happen, I think I'd feel like this was a really good thing."

    * * *

    Benedict XVI's visit yesterday to the Cologne synagogue seems to be playing to largely favorable reaction in Jewish circles. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, based in New York, released the following statement:

    The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) hails Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Roonstrasse Synagogue in Cologne as historic and "speaks volumes, not just to the Jewish community, but indeed the whole world." Inspired by the changes of the Second Vatican Council's declaration Nostra Aetate, and the remarkable example set by the Pope's immediate predecessor John Paul II, Benedict has charted a steady course in the holy work of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.

    In a letter sent to Pope Benedict XVI, Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, and Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, ADL Director of Interfaith Affairs, said "The very symbol of your presence on the pulpit of Northern Europe's oldest synagogue - destroyed by your some of your countrymen under the influence of a murderous and morally bankrupt regime, and rebuilt by the hopes of a saving remnant - demonstrates to the world that we can look to the future without erasing the past."

    Mr. Foxman and Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor were heartened the Pope's acknowledgement that 'new signs of anti-Semitism are emerging' and stated, 'We look to you as a partner in the work of eradicating the scourge of baseless hatred and xenophobia, that too often targets the Jews -- even in places where Jews are absent.

    They went on to say, 'We stand ready to work together for the defense and promotion of human rights, social justice and peace for the world.'

    August 20, 2005, National Catholic Reporter

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