Pope Benedict XVI Makes First Foreign Visit

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John Allen
National Catholic Reporter
Friday, August 19, 2005; 1:00 PM

Pope Benedict XVI returns to his native Germany this week in his first foreign trip since succeeding Pope John Paul II in April. It was his predecessor who first inaugurated World Youth Day, a five-day Catholic festival expected to draw over 24,000 to the streets of Cologne. The new pope will be closely scrutinized as he seeks to reach out to young people and revitalize the church in Europe.

John Allen , a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter who is currently in Cologne, Germany, will be online Friday, Aug. 19, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the Pope's trip to World Youth Day.

The transcript follows.

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Falls Church, Va.: Sort of a divine coincidence that the preselected location of the new Pope's first appearance at a world youth day rally (a recurring event initiated by the old Pope) is in his native Germany? I will be curious to see what sort of enthusiasm the host country generates for one of their own. I was in Germany some years ago and attended Sunday Mass in an urban church. I may be over generalizing, but it was very sparsely attended and rather lifeless, unlike the packed Sunday Masses typical in my vibrant Arlington, Virginia diocese. What do you think are the chances of this Pope bringing vitality and growth to western European Catholicism? He seems to lack the spiritual and numerical underpinning of support Pope John Paul II received from his Polish countrymen.

John Allen: Yeah, the official estimate from the German bishops is that 18 percent of Catholics here go to Mass; most Germans I talk to say that's too high. Certainly the enthusiasm levels here have been tremendous, but remember that World Youth Day participants come from 193 nations, so it's not necessarily a reflection of the German situation. On the other hand, the German press seems astonished at how well things have gone so far -- the Frankfurter Allgemeine today called it "nothing short of a miracle" in terms of the turnout and passion. The big question is what long-term impact it will have, and obviously that remains to be seen.

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Stamford, Conn.: Pope Bennie's visit to the German Synangogue was a thoughtful statement.

The previous statements by Vatican officials (about Israel) were more ignorant than malevolent. Bennie helped write many of the Vatican positions issued by JPII, so I expect to see more outreach to Jews and Christians.

Will the Pope visit a mosque? How will the Muslim world respond?

John Allen: As you probably know, John Paul became the first pope to visit a mosque, the Grand Ommayid Mosque in Damascus, in 2001. (Great story about me almost getting killed by the Syrian security, which I'll save for another time). If as expected Benedict travels to Istanbul to meet the Patriarch of Constantinople, it's hard to imagine he wouldn't also schedule a trip to a mosque. On the whole, people expect Benedict to take a slightly more "hawkish" line with Muslims, insisting on reciprocity -- if Muslim immigrants get religious freedom in the West, then we want it for Christians in majority Muslim states.

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Baltimore, Md.: Pope Benedict XVI has as one of his goals, reaching the Jews of Europe. Interestingly enough, his former position in "The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith" was once known as "The Inquisition". His admiration of Vatican I tactics is a direct threat to the Jewish population. Has no one questioned why the present and former Pontiffs have been from the two countries that sought to exterminate Jews in Europe?

John Allen: Well, both of those popes have. They tend to believe that God wanted sons of Poland and Germany to be the ones to try to heal these historical wounds -- that was the logic of John Paul's 2000 visit to Israel, for example. How well they've done that is for others to judge. What Benedict said today in the synagogue is that we've got to be able to talk honestly to one another about our differences.

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Baltimore Md.: What are the pope's goals -- both immediate and longer-term -- in choosing that event in Cologne, Germany, as his first foreign trip?

John Allen: Benedict XVI didn't choose this trip -- John Paul II did, back in 2002, at the end of World Youth Day in Toronto. In that sense, Benedict's goal is the same as John Paul's -- to try to inspire young people to live Catholic faith to the full, especially in the ultra-secularized environment of Germany and Western Europe. Beyond that, however, he also several other objectives. He added to the trip a visit to the Cologne synagogue, which happened today at noon, as a way of advancing the Catholic/Jewish relationship. He also added a meeting with Muslims tomorrow, as a way of trying to figure out where to take that relationship. And he has an ecumenical session with Protestants that's going on right now, in order to pursue Christian unity -- in other words, putting the divided Christian churches back together.

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Detroit, Michigan: No matter what gestures the current pope makes toward other faiths, his record as the Vatican's doctrine expert (as Cardinal Ratzinger) will make other faiths suspicious. The "Dominus Iesus" which he authored was not the type of document that brings faiths toward understanding and compassion toward one another. In fact, Cardinal Ratzinger at the time stated that theologians were "manipulating and going beyond the limits of tolerance when they put all religions on the same plane".

I don't think the Vatican today is attuned to the sensitivities of other faiths. Another example, was the canonization of Edith Stein. She did not die in the Holocaust as a result of her Catholicism: it was because she was born as a Jew and the Nazis viewed her as such. It is probably too much to hope that the Vatican will honor a Catholic who lost their life at that time for having saved jews (that is what Israel honors as "righteous gentiles").

John Allen: You rightly point to a number of serious, and as yet unresolved, in the Catholic Church's relationship with other faiths, perhaps especially Judaism. Yet I was at the Cologne synagogue today, and what I saw convinced me that people on both sides genuinely want healing and better ties. When Rabbi Netanel Teitelbaum said he was extending his hand to Benedict as a sign of peace, the place erupted. As the pope was leaving, a man wearing the traditional Jewish yarmulke and tallit sprinted towards his car and planted a kiss on the window. Such gestures tell me that despite the challenges out there, hope endures.

John Allen: The missing word in that first sentence is "issues."

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Falls Church, Va.: This is probably an unfair question because Pope JPII stands as a towering figure right now, but how would you rate Pope B's charm and persuasion against JPII's? What strengths will Pope B likely utilize to spread the Word?

John Allen: While Benedict does not have John Paul's populist touch, he is a strikingly clear, limpid thinker, where John Paul's prose could sometimes be a bit dense. Further, Benedict is a genuinely gracious, humble man, and my experience is that people find those attractive qualities. The broader world may not be wowed as they were by JPII, but I suspect that serious people will find it impossible to ignore Benedict XVI, whether they agree with him or not.

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Chicago, Ill.: Could you give your opinion - albeit highly subjective - concerning the following: the extent to which the German people in Cologne are reacting to Pope Benedict with affection, as opposed to open or muted hostility?

John Allen: My sense is that the crowds have been large and genuinely affectionate, though bear in mind that the majority are not German -- the largest delegation is actually from Italy, with more than 100,000, and there are 25,000 Americans here. Many of the participants in World Youth Day are already involved, committed Catholics who would be pumped up to be in the presence of any pope. For most of the youth, they love seeing the pope, but what they really get from WYD is connection with other young people like themselves. Many feel like a minority back home, and here they get reinforcement and new energy.

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USA: I read some comments suggesting that the current pope intends to keep a lower profile (including traveling less) than John Paul II in an effort to re-focus the attention of the faithful away from the person of the pope and toward Christ.

I read this as an implied criticism of the previous pope.

Your comments?

John Allen: I think your reading of Benedict's style is correct -- he wants the focus to be squarely on the office and the message, not the man. But I personally don't read that as a criticism of John Paul II. I think it's rather a recognition that John Paul had a unique charisma that brought new prestige to the papacy, but the risk is creating a cult of personality that ultimately distracts people from the core of the faith. You see here in Cologne a less theatrical style, based more on words than gestures, which is fascinating for those of us in the pencil press, though a little frustrating for my colleagues in TV!

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Detroit, Mich: The Roman Catholic Church is largely irrelevant. How many priests have been charged with sexual abuse? More than three thousand? If three thousand Republican politicians were charged with sexually abusing children, the Republican Party would cease to exist. Same for the Democrats.

But the Catholic Church just goes on and on and on...

John Allen: I certainly understand your frustration ... though, for fairness' sake, it should be recalled that the figure of accused priests covers a time span of more than fifty years, representing slightly more than four percent of priests who served during that time. Even one priest is obviously too many, and given the numbers, it's clear there was a systemic problem, but it would be equally unfair to paint with too broad a brush. As for irrelevance, all I can say is that the roughly 1 million or so youth here in Cologne don't seem to think so. Perhaps they represent a minority of youth around the world, but it strikes most observers as a fairly dynamic and impressive minority.

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Austin, Tex.: I saw some interviews with some of the young people. Of course the people who spoke may not have been representative, but it was very clear that even in this self-selecting group, a lot of those kids don't take the Pope's stand on social issues (contraception, homosexuality, etc.) very seriously.

And they're presumably a lot more sympathetic to the Church's teaching than the young people of Western Europe in general.

I see trouble brewing. More specifically, I think the Church in Western Europe is basically finished.

I assume you disagree. Can you convince me?

John Allen: Well, it's not my role to agree or disagree, and certainly the numbers can be read to support your conclusion -- declining Mass attendance rates, declining numbers of priests, virtually no influence on public life, etc. (Though there are of course exceptions to all of those trends). I think what Pope Benedict has in mind is what he's called Christianity as a "creative minority" -- it may no longer be a mass phenomenon, but if it can generate a core of dedicated, passionate believers, it may still be able to exercise an outsized impact on the culture. I suppose it's that core one sees here in Cologne. You're quite right, many of these youth may have different ideas on some specific issues, but by and large they seem genuinely enthusiastic about the church and their faith. What that translates into when they go home, of course, is a different question.

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John Allen: I might note for anyone who's interested that I'm filing daily reports from Cologne, which are available at http://www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/word/

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washingtonpost.com: Thanks to all who participated.

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