For MU student Elizabeth Studnicka, World Youth Day 2005 was an opportunity for young Roman Catholics like herself to meet their new pope, Benedict XVI. But at the same time, it was a chance to honor John Paul II, who, before his death in April, was the only pope many so-called millenial Catholics ever knew.
“It was almost like having two popes there,” said Studnicka, one of fourteen Columbia-area Catholics who attended the five-day event last month in Cologne, Germany.
World Youth Day 2005 marked the first trip outside of Italy for Pope Benedict XVI since his election this past spring. It also marked the first celebration without John Paul, who founded the annual event in 1985 and chose Cologne as the site for the 2005 gathering. He was considered by many Catholics, especially those born between 1978 and 1985, as the young people’s pope. Benedict’s appeal to younger Catholics has been a subject of debate since he became pontiff.
“Living in the shadow of Pope John Paul II is not a fair comparison, even after World Youth Day, which was a fantastic way to introduce him to the people and vice versa,” Studnicka said. “But we still don’t know him that well.”
In an address to the more than 800,000 pilgrims who gathered in Cologne, Benedict acknowledged the “extraordinary spiritual legacy” left by Pope John Paul II. “He loved you,” he said. “You realized that, and you returned his love with all your youthful enthusiasm.”
The Columbia pilgrimage, which included Pastor Charles Pardee and Campus Minister Christy Hicks, both of the MU Newman Center, began in Rome on Aug. 11. The group visited the Vatican and the four pilgrimage churches in Rome before flying to Cologne on Aug. 15. Pope Benedict XVI arrived on the banks of the Rhine River three days later and immediately paid tribute to John Paul, “who had the inspired idea of calling young people from all over the world to join in celebrating Christ,” Benedict said.
In 1985, to mark International Youth Year, Pope John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter to the youth of the Catholic Church, inviting them to Rome for Palm Sunday. That event became the first World Youth Day, and each year since then pilgrims have gathered in Rome or another city. Participants spend the week traveling around the host country, sleeping wherever they can find a bed.
In Cologne, the Columbia pilgrims stayed in an elementary school gymnasium on the outskirts of the city with 90 other people. Rather than using a public transportation system inundated with travelers, the group walked wherever it needed to go. Nearing the end of the journey, they used public transportation to get into the main part of the city before hiking 20 miles to Marienfield, site of the final vigil and mass, where they camped for the night.
There are nearly 65 million Roman Catholics in the United States; about 40 percent are between the ages of 18 and 40, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Hicks said John Paul II was one of the first popes to recognize the value of young people and did more to open the church to its younger members.
“Young adults are at that place where they’re deciding, ‘Where am I going?’” Hicks said. “‘Where is God calling me?’ The church is keenly aware that the young-adult culture is changing and we have to call the young-adult culture in a special way and let them know they are valuable.”
Hicks, who also attended World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, said the energy at this year’s event was not the same.
“That’s not a negative thing,” she said. “They’re very different people. There’s a different energy. The thing I love about Pope Benedict XVI is he has a very quiet spirit. John Paul II was much more charismatic, but they’re not much different in spirituality.”
MU student Jen McGuire, who also traveled to Cologne, said that Benedict “must continue but also be his own person. He won’t do the exact same thing in the exact same way.”
Fellow pilgrim Emily Wenzlick is pleased that the Catholic Church’s new leader is carrying on the Youth Day tradition. “It shows his commitment to the young church,” she said.
Throughout his visit to Cologne, Benedict spoke of the journey made by the young people of the world, of searching for and serving God, and of being in the presence of Jesus. He often compared the pilgrims to the Magi, making their journey to meet Christ. He also spoke of events happening around the globe and addressed concern for the state of the world.
On Aug. 21, in his farewell speech before returning to Rome, Benedict said the young people from every continent and culture “have shown us a young Church, one that seeks with imagination and courage to shape the face of a more just and generous humanity.”
World Youth Day 2006 and 2007 will be held in Rome. The 2008 event will be in Sydney, Australia.