John Paul created World Youth Day 20 summers ago in Rome, and the most traveled pope in history went on to celebrate and worship with the world's Catholic youth over the years in Argentina, Spain, Poland, the United States, the Philippines, France and Canada.
Pope Benedict XVI will be one day short of his four-month anniversary as pontiff when he touches down in Cologne on Thursday (Aug. 18), marking his first trip outside Italy since becoming spiritual leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics. When Benedict begins his public activities Thursday afternoon on a boat trip from the Rodenkirchenbrucke wharf in Cologne to an audience with hundreds of young people at the Rheinwiesen Warf outside the city, he will be operating in a context entirely shaped by John Paul.
"Benedict has very big shoes to fill," said Chester Gillis, chairman of the Department of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington. "World Youth Day was one of the hallmarks of the papacy of John Paul II. The world will be watching and -- fairly or not -- (it will compare) his performance to 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 John Paul, 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 Paul became the first to do so. The pontiff will also meet with local Muslim leaders, building on a history of reaching out to other faiths that gained momentum under John Paul.
But the real comparisons will come from the way the new pope interacts with the world's young people, the Catholic demographic that most adored John 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 noticeably sped up after Benedict was installed as pope on April 19. And young Catholics expressing their views, whether on television news programs around the world or on personal Internet blogs, appear enthusiastic about what will be Benedict's most visible stage since his coronation.
"I think one factor working in Benedict's favor is the fact that he's a native German returning to his own country," said the Rev. Alistair Sear, a Rome-based scholar and church historian. "He is also very energetic, at least compared to John Paul as seen through the eyes of people far too young to remember the strong and active first decade of John Paul's reign. These youngsters who will be in Cologne will remember John Paul only as a frail old man who was stooped over and who could hardly walk."
Nonetheless, there are many who think Benedict shouldn't even try to fill John Paul's shoes.
"Pope Benedict is an amazingly serene and scholarly man, and I think that will have traction among the people who are attracted to an event like World Youth Day," said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, the provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.
"This is not about being entertained," said Fessio, who studied under Benedict when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. "World Youth Day is not Pope John Paul's event, and it is not Pope Benedict's event. It is Christ's event, the church's event."
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, who will be leading 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 to see the Holy Father not just as a brilliant theologian and guardian of the truth of the gospel, but as the warm, loving and simple pastor, which he is for all who get to know him," McCarrick said.
World Youth Day events in Cologne will take place Aug. 16-21, with Benedict scheduled to attend the last four days, highlighted by a Sunday Mass expected to draw tens of thousands. Among the estimated crowd of 800,000 that will come to Cologne will be some 24,000 young people from the United States.
Five of the Americans (Gina DiSalvo, 22, of Washington, D.C.; Maria Francisco, 28, of Tucson, Ariz.; Mary Sturgeon, 25, of Chicago; Brian Hanson, 25, of Tempe, Ariz.; and Chris Malano, 25, of Honolulu) will be among 150 youths from around the world specially selected to perform key liturgical roles assisting the pope.