Youth gather for 'Catholic Woodstock'

Hundreds of thousands descend on Cologne in big test for the new pope's ability to rally youth.

When Pope Benedict XVI takes the stage on Sunday to perform mass before hundreds of thousands of young Catholics in the culmination of World Youth Day celebrations in Cologne, he's likely to feel a little out of his element.

Whereas Pope John Paul II reveled in the attention of millions, working the crowd like a rock star, his successor's reputation as a reserved and rigid defender of the faith has left many wondering whether he'll be able to connect to the future of the Roman Catholic Church in the same way, sparking the sort of long-term commitment to the faith that the church desperately needs.

"We will have to wait see whether Pope Benedict XVI can imitate that," says Siegfried Wiedenhofer, a Frankfurt theology professor who studied under the pope when he was a theology professor in Bonn in the 1960s and remains friends with him to this day. "I would say that through his unpretentiousness and his warm personality he will be able to fulfill the role. But it's not one in which he feels comfortable."

Pope John Paul II created World Youth Day in 1984 in an effort to reconnect the church with its future generations. Subsequent events, starting in Rome and including - among other cities - Denver and Toronto, offered the perfect stage for the charismatic pope to connect with a generation sociologists say has begun slowly losing interest in traditional institutions.

Now his successor, who arrived at the Cologne airport on Thursday morning, is hoping to continue his legacy.

"I would like to show them how beautiful it is to be Christian because the widespread idea which continues to exist is that Christianity is composed of laws and bans which one has to keep and, hence, is something toilsome and burdensome," he said in a Vatican radio interview before his arrival in Cologne. He hoped the week-long event would spark "a wave of new faith among young people - especially the youth in Germany and Europe."

Sociologists and religious scholars say the gap between spirituality and the institution of the church has never been greater. The number of people attending mass has dropped significantly across most of Western Europe and the United States since 1980. Though young people are even more spiritual than their parents or grandparents were, they are proving tough to lock into Catholicism longterm, according to Grace Davie, a religion and sociology professor at the University of Exeter, in England.

"There's an openness to spirituality among young people," says Ms. Davie. "You see that in the readiness to do these one-off things, like in Cologne. They like being together, but they just don't want a week-by-week commitment."

Indeed, Cologne is already drawing the throngs that has made World Youth Day the largest regular gathering of Catholics in the world. The city is awash in young people and colorful banners and flags identifying their country of origin. By Sunday, organizers forecast that up to a million people from around 200 nations will have arrived for the "Catholic Woodstock." Youth Day candles, but also flip-flops, are on sale, as is a cellphone ring version of the Youth Day song "Venimus adorare eum." Posters are plastered in storefronts advertising "After-Prayer" parties.

"You think about church, it's something from the Middle Ages," says Bernhard Dreher, a young computer administrator from nearby Heidelberg. "Here at Youth Day the church is young. Here there is the rhythm of the masses, and it's more inviting, like a party."

The feeling is something evangelicals in the US and, increasingly, in Britain, have long seized upon as the way forward, says Brent Nelsen, chair of the political science department at Furman University in South Carolina. Mainline US churches, like their European counterparts, are losing members because they don't repackage "orthodox Christian doctrine to address current culture."

"The gospel is about reconciling all of humanity to its Creator, but all the culture seems to hear is the teaching on sex and women," says Nelsen, who has written several academic articles on religion and politics in Europe.

Pope Benedict XVI, who grew up in the conservative German state of Bavaria, has not done much to change that image. In his first 100 days, he has come out strongly against a gay marriage law passed in Spain and subtly backed calls to boycott an Italian referendum on stem-cell research that ultimately met defeat. Regarding women and marriage in the priesthood and contraception, issues important to Catholics in traditionally secular countries like France and Germany, Benedict XVI remains steadfastly conservative. In doing so, say critics, he risks alienating young people in the very area of the world in which he hopes to strengthen Catholicism - Europe.

"The only thing that makes us proud is that he's German, but the church needs to become more open," says Inga Keskering, 20, a Youth Day visitor who would like to see the Vatican develop a more liberal take on homosexuality and contraception. "Today, the world is open, but the church is not."

While the Pope's orthodoxy may not resonate widely within his home country, youth from more traditional parts of the Catholic world may be more receptive. "At the World Youth Day, you have many young people from outside Europe displaying their faith more freely and in a more uncomplicated manner than their European counterparts. The hope is that this self-evident form of faith rubs off on the more secular Europeans," says Mr. Wiedenhofer.

Evidence also exists of a rising traditionalism among Western youth as well. A study by Mark Gray, a researcher at Georgetown University, found that the generation born after 1982 is more devout than the generation before it. "They are more likely to pray every day and more likely to believe religion is important than the generation before them."

The youth in Cologne showcase a "big tent" approach, with "Pro-Life" T-shirts seen alongside revealing halter tops.

"Young people are not looking to churches for answers on social or sexual or personal moral problems," says Jan Kerkhofs, a Belgian theologian. "They look to them mainly for meaning in life."

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