John Paul created World Youth Day 20 summers ago in Rome, and the mosttraveled pope in history went on to celebrate and worship with the world'sCatholic youth over the years in Argentina, Spain, Poland, the UnitedStates, the Philippines, France and Canada.
Pope Benedict XVI will be one day short of his four-month anniversaryas pontiff when he touches down in Cologne on Thursday (Aug. 18), markinghis first trip outside Italy since becoming spiritual leader of the world's1.1 billion Catholics. When Benedict begins his public activities Thursdayafternoon on a boat trip from the Rodenkirchenbrucke wharf in Cologne to anaudience with hundreds of young people at the Rheinwiesen Warf outside thecity, he will be operating in a context entirely shaped by John Paul.
"Benedict has very big shoes to fill," said Chester Gillis, chairman ofthe Department of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington. "WorldYouth Day was one of the hallmarks of the papacy of John Paul II. The worldwill be watching and -- fairly or not -- (it will compare) his performanceto the captivating charm of his beloved predecessor."
The comparisons will be hard to avoid.
By simply stepping on an airplane Benedict follows the path of JohnPaul, who visited more than 100 countries during his nearly 27-year reign,taking more trips away from the Vatican than all previous popes combined.While in Germany, Benedict is scheduled to visit the synagogue in Cologne,only the second pope to enter a synagogue -- nearly 20 years after John Paulbecame the first to do so. The pontiff will also meet with local Muslimleaders, building on a history of reaching out to other faiths that gainedmomentum under John Paul.
But the real comparisons will come from the way the new pope interactswith the world's young people, the Catholic demographic that most adoredJohn Paul as he reached out to them during nearly three decades.
So far, church officials are optimistic.
Event organizers note that the rate of confirmed visitors noticeablysped up after Benedict was installed as pope on April 19. And youngCatholics expressing their views, whether on television news programs aroundthe world or on personal Internet blogs, appear enthusiastic about what willbe Benedict's most visible stage since his coronation.
"I think one factor working in Benedict's favor is the fact that he's anative German returning to his own country," said the Rev. Alistair Sear, aRome-based scholar and church historian. "He is also very energetic, atleast compared to John Paul as seen through the eyes of people far too youngto remember the strong and active first decade of John Paul's reign. Theseyoungsters who will be in Cologne will remember John Paul only as a frailold man who was stooped over and who could hardly walk."
Nonetheless, there are many who think Benedict shouldn't even try tofill John Paul's shoes.
"Pope Benedict is an amazingly serene and scholarly man, and I thinkthat will have traction among the people who are attracted to an event likeWorld Youth Day," said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, the provost of Ave MariaUniversity in Naples, Fla.
"This is not about being entertained," said Fessio, who studied underBenedict when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. "World YouthDay is not Pope John Paul's event, and it is not Pope Benedict's event. Itis Christ's event, the church's event."
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, who will beleading a group of 106 pilgrims from the greater Washington area to Cologne,agreed that comparisons between Benedict and John Paul might not be useful. "My hope would be that (the World Youth Day participants) will get tosee the Holy Father not just as a brilliant theologian and guardian of thetruth of the gospel, but as the warm, loving and simple pastor, which he isfor all who get to know him," McCarrick said.
World Youth Day events in Cologne will take place Aug. 16-21, withBenedict scheduled to attend the last four days, highlighted by a SundayMass expected to draw tens of thousands. Among the estimated crowd of 800,000 that will come to Cologne will besome 24,000 young people from the United States.
Five of the Americans (Gina DiSalvo, 22, of Washington, D.C.; MariaFrancisco, 28, of Tucson, Ariz.; Mary Sturgeon, 25, of Chicago; BrianHanson, 25, of Tempe, Ariz.; and Chris Malano, 25, of Honolulu) will beamong 150 youths from around the world specially selected to perform keyliturgical roles assisting the pope.