COLOGNE — Pope Benedict XVI ended his four-day trip to his native Germany on Sunday by celebrating an open-air Mass for a million people, mainly young people with whom he found mixed rapport, after a visit during which he reached out to Jews and Muslims and urged Europe to rediscover its Christian tradition.
The sun broke through the thick gray clouds as Benedict spoke from a raised altar platform during the huge Mass of World Youth Day, urging the church’s next generation to use wisely the freedom God gave them.
In messages directed specifically at young people, he reached out to nonbelievers, but he also laid out what he believed was demanded of a good Catholic. “It is good that today, in many cultures, Sunday is a free day, and it is often combined with Saturday so as to constitute a weekend of free time,” he told the sprawling, flag-waving crowd that World Youth Day organizers said reached a million people in a field on the outskirts of Cologne.
“Yet this free time is empty if God is not present,” he said, in an address he delivered in five languages. “Sometimes our initial impression is that having to include time for Mass on a Sunday is rather inconvenient. But if you make the effort, you will realize that this is what gives a proper focus to your free time.”
He also warned of believing in God in too personal a way. “If it is pushed too far, religion becomes almost a consumer product,” he said. “Religion constructed on a ‘do it yourself’ basis cannot ultimately help us.”
As he waited to attend the Mass during an overnight vigil in a mushy field here, Gerrit Meents, 25, from Germany, loved the sea of winking candles, the music from around the world, the communion with hundreds of thousands of young Catholics like himself. Even the cold, he said, “wasn’t too bad.”
What did not touch him deeply was a speech by his new pope. “Actually it didn’t really have an impact on me,” he said, still in his sleeping bag. “I think he’s still learning how to address young people. As we were saying yesterday, half a year ago he was just running around Rome, and now he’s pope. So he’s still learning,” he added, “and that’s all right.”
Before the Mass, the crowds screamed out “Benedetto!” with fervor when the pope passed through the throngs of people in the popemobile. And the new pope, an apparently untiring 78, seemed not only to enjoy himself, but made strides on this first and crucial trip abroad in defining his papacy, especially the church’s stands on terrorism and dialogue among religions.
But the emotional charge that Catholics became accustomed to from 26 years of the charismatic Pope John Paul II, scores of young people said, was less evident in this less extroverted, more cerebral pope. “He’s so new, I don’t think we have much of an insight on him so far,” said Mallory Miles, 18, who recently graduated from high school in Laredo, Texas. “But I’m sure it will come out.”
She said she thought World Youth Day, which was founded by John Paul in 1984, would still attract crowds (and Benedict announced on Sunday that the next World Youth Day would take place in Sydney in 2008).
Church officials are blunt that few humans could match John Paul for stage presence, and perhaps particularly not the man cardinals chose as his successor in April: the bookish, piano-playing, behind-the-scenes former defender of the faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
While John Paul would reminisce about his soccer buddies or a favorite bakery on trips to his native Poland, Benedict said little publicly on this trip about growing up, teaching or being a cardinal in Germany (though he wrote a memoir about it called “Milestones”).
While John Paul enjoyed whipping up the faithful, Benedict stuck largely to his scripts, which were unfailingly graceful, erudite and clear but not show-stoppers.
Church officials do not seem especially worried about the difference. Some, in fact, after 26 years of the almost defiantly personal John Paul, seem to prefer a pope whose style accents more the office than the man.
Joaqui’n Navarro-Valls, the longtime spokesman for John Paul, and now the spokesman for Benedict, said: “There are many ways of communicating. There is not just one way.”
Asked about the way that Benedict excels, Navarro-Valls said, “Concepts.”
The Mass capped a trip that saw Benedict hold two important interfaith meetings: a synagogue visit in which he drew applause for urging better relations between Christians and Jews, and a frank meeting with Muslim leaders in which he condemned terrorism.
Benedict, a highly regarded theologian, has been clear: In a landmark meeting with Muslims on Saturday, he told them that while better relations between Christians and Muslims were essential to defeat terrorism, he implied, too, that Muslims bore much responsibility on their own.
Benedict has spoken of the imperfections of the church, but also the strength and universality of Catholicism as a world religion.
If his public appearances were not electrifying, nearly everyone who met with him in private spoke of his warmth, humility and down-to-earth qualities.
And for many, Benedict’s appeal lay in two key facts: that he is conservative and that he is following very much the same program as John Paul, who emphasized the role of youth in the church.
But as he flew home to Rome on Sunday after this four-day trip, one remaining question seemed to be whether Benedict’s message, if not his stage presence, would have continuing appeal to young people.
As with the former pope, who often spoke to young people about abstaining from sex, not everyone here agrees on specific issues with Benedict, who is known for his conservative views during his years as defender of the faith.
Some Africans, for example, disagreed with the church position against condom use, a ban even in countries where the prevalence of HIV and AIDS is high.
“My own opinion is that condoms are a way to be safe because AIDS makes problems in Africa,” said Divingu Dimelvic, 25, a student from Gabon.
“But with time, maybe the position of the pope will change.”
And at least one of Benedict’s favorite topics – though he did not discuss it here in Cologne – had no resonance with two young women from Houston.
“Relativism – what do you mean by that?” asked Joni Magill, 18.
When it was explained that Benedict had often condemned the notion that all religious beliefs were equal, her friend, who did not give her name, said, “We try not to judge others.”