Pope Benedict XVI returned to his native land Thursday in the first foreign mission of his papacy, a four-day visit designed to improve relations with Jews and Muslims but also to reach out to the large numbers of European Catholics who have drifted away from the church.
More than 300,000 people cheered along the shore of the Rhine River as Benedict waved from the deck of a cruise ship and blessed the crowd in five languages. He spoke briefly at monumental Cologne Cathedral, a gothic structure whose foundation stone was laid in 1248. The pontiff also rode in his bulletproof popemobile through the packed streets of the city; he called the size of the crowds "a sign of the church's vitality."
"I am happy to be with them, confirm their faith and enliven their hope," he said.
While he was greeted with warmth and respect, many people said Benedict's homecoming lacked the emotion and style associated with his predecessor, John Paul II, who routinely drew exuberant crowds during his global jaunts and was treated as a national hero in his native Poland. On his arrival in Cologne, Benedict did not emulate John Paul, who made a habit of kissing the tarmac on his flights from the Vatican. Benedict looked momentarily confused when he stepped off the plane at the Cologne-Bonn airport and a gust of wind blew away his skullcap.
The pope was greeted by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Horst Koehler in a red-carpet ceremony. "It is particularly moving -- and I can say this also as a Protestant Christian -- that a German, one of us, has been made pope," Koehler said.
Benedict, 78, is the first German pope in five centuries, but many of his countrymen responded to his election in April with skepticism. In a survey of 1,000 Germans last month by the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, only 45 percent of people who identified themselves as Christians said they had confidence in Benedict as pope.
Benedict, elected to the papacy by the College of Cardinals on April 19, 17 days after the death of John Paul II, is considered a remote figure to many Germans. He spent the past quarter-century in Rome as a cardinal and high-ranking Vatican official in charge of upholding church doctrine. Also lessening his support was his reputation as firmly opposing abortion, the ordination of women and the use of condoms and other forms of birth control -- positions at odds with much of the German population.
Even some German Catholics who turned out for Benedict's visit expressed reservations about his leadership, saying his views would make it difficult for him to revive the church's influence in Europe.
Sarah Koxholt, 18, a high school student from the nearby town of Gummersbach, stood in the square next to Cologne Cathedral wearing a bright orange T-shirt printed with the words "Do it, Ratze!" -- a supportive slogan referring to the pope's given name, Joseph Ratzinger. When asked what Benedict could do to draw more young people into the church, however, Koxholt shook her head and threw up her hands. "Nothing," she said. "He's way, way too conservative."
During his stay in Cologne, Benedict is scheduled to lead an open-air Mass on Sunday for an estimated 1 million people. He is also slated to make a historic visit to the Cologne synagogue on Friday, the second time that a pontiff has officially visited a Jewish house of worship. John Paul visited Rome's main synagogue in 1986.
The Cologne synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 and rebuilt two decades later, although most of the city's Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Benedict's visit will have added significance not only because of his German heritage but also because he was a member of the Hitler Youth and a conscript in the German military as a teenager in Bavaria.
Horst Herrmann, a sociologist at the University of Muenster who studies the role of the Catholic Church in Europe, said it was remarkable that more Germans didn't come out to greet the pope and suggested that Benedict had a nearly impossible task to reverse the decline in the church's membership in his native land.
"All in all, the importance of this gathering is grossly exaggerated," he said. "There are, from what I have heard, 80,000 German young people present. Germany has millions of young people who are not there -- not there because they are not Catholics, because they have no interest in the pope, or because they have better things to do."
"It seems like a celebration for a church that is dying in Europe and the Western world," Herrman added. "Behind the facade, much more is already dead than the church is willing to admit, and the pope is aware of that."
During his tour of Cologne, Benedict made a point of tailoring his remarks to nonbelievers and those who have strayed from Catholicism. "I also greet with affection those among you who have not been baptized or who have not found a home in the church," he said. "To all of you I appeal: Open wide your hearts to God. Let yourselves be surprised by Christ."
The message seemed aimed directly at young Germans like Mathis Becker, 21, a student at the University of Bonn. He identified himself as "not religious" and said he had not been baptized, but he still spent a few hours stretched out on the flagstones in front of the majestic cathedral waiting for Benedict to make an appearance.
"I'm just watching the spectacle," he explained. "I'd come if it were a concert or anything else. For me, it's not important who is the pope. The church will continue to lose influence, and this pope can't do anything about that."
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.