Benedict XVI’s first foreign trip shows subdued style, interfaith efforts
COLOGNE, Germany – Pope Benedict XVI triumphantly ended his four-day trip to his native Germany on Sunday, celebrating an open-air Mass for a million people and warning Europe against growing secularism and “do-it-yourself” religion.A synagogue visit, in which he won applause for his warning about rising anti-Semitism, and a frank talk with Muslims about terrorism, underlined interfaith relations as a key theme of his first foreign travel as pope.During his closing homily at Sunday Mass, Benedict told those gathered for the church’s 20th World Youth Day festival in Cologne, Germany, that there was a “strange forgetfulness of God,” while at same time the sense of frustration and dissatisfaction has led to a “new explosion of religion.””I have no wish to discredit all the manifestations of this phenomenon,” he said. “Yet, if it is pushed too far, religion becomes almost a consumer product. People choose what they like, and some are even able to make a profit from it.””But religion constructed on a ‘do-it-youself’ basis cannot ultimately help us,” he said.The throngs from almost 200 countries had been invited to the festival by a different pope, the charismatic John Paul II, before his death April 2.But they embraced his 78-year-old, more subdued successor with the same huge turnout, shouts and applause on his first foreign trip as pope.”Beeen-e-DET-to, Beeen-e-DET-to,” they chanted, using the Italian version of his name. Some 800,000 of them spent the night in the Marienfeld, or Mary’s Field, outside Cologne, sleeping on the ground so they could attend Sunday’s Mass. Flags from dozens of countries floated over the crowd.Benedict returned to Rome on Sunday night by airplane. During the flight, the pontiff posed for photos with German journalists.Benedict used his trip to make it clear that he intends to continue key parts of John Paul’s heritage. In particular, he held two important interfaith meetings with Muslims and Jews. He became only the second pope in history to visit a synagogue when he spoke to Cologne’s Jewish community, winning a standing ovation for his warning of rising anti-Semitism and call for deeper dialogue.He made blunter statements during a meeting with Muslim officials, raising the issue of terrorism, which he called “cruel fanaticism,” and urging older Muslims to educate the young generation in the ways of peace.Yet it was clear he was establishing his own style. There were none of John Paul II’s theatrical gestures such as kissing the ground on arrival or shuffling to the music. Instead, he read his speeches slowly in a soft voice and waved and smiled shyly at the loud applause that greeted him every time he came out in public.He also did not remind his youthful audience of the Roman Catholic Church’s bans on premarital sex and the use of condoms and other forms of artificial birth control, favorite topics of John Paul.And he made no promise to attend the next World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, in 2008; John Paul would always end World Youth Day – which he founded in 1984 – by saying he would come to the next one.He expressed serious concern on another of his favorite themes, the need to evangelize a Europe that has become increasingly secular despite its centuries of Christian belief – although the huge turnout for the Sunday Mass was evidence that the church still retains its hold over many people’s hearts.”Even in traditionally Catholic areas, the teaching of religion and catechesis do not alway manage to forge lasting bonds between young people and the church community,” he told German bishops shortly before his departure.At the Mass, he urged the church’s next generation to wisely use the freedom God gave them.”Freedom is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy, but rather about living by the measure of truth and goodness so that we ourselves can become true and good,” he told the crowd.He urged people not to forget Sunday Mass when they arrived back in their home countries: “If you make the effort, you will realize that this is what gives a proper focus to your free time.”Benedict’s visit was also his first homecoming as pope to his native country. He was born in Marktl Am Inn in Bavaria, and said in his farewell remarks at the airport that he hoped people had seen another Germany to counter the shameful memory of Nazi rule and World War II.”During these days, thanks be to God, it has become quite evident that there was and is another Germany, a land of singular human, cultural and spiritual resources,” he said.
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