VATICAN CITY — World Youth Day 2005 shows every sign of matching the high expectations of its organizers, and many German youth are eagerly waiting for the event.

“We're looking forward very much to our visit to Cologne, taking part in the events and meeting young people of so many different nationalities,” said Eva Maria Dapper, 22, from the Bavarian city of Würzburg.

Dapper, a volunteer in her diocesan World Youth Day office, is responsible for organizing transportation of a large group of 2,000 young pilgrims from Würzburg to the Rhineland, where they will stay for the duration of the event, from Aug. 16-21.

But the work is absolutely worth it, she said, and the visit of their fellow Bavarian countryman, Pope Benedict XVI, will, of course, be a highlight.

“We're very happy that the Pope is going to visit and, personally, I very much hope that he increases interest in the Church among the youth in Germany,” she said.

Coming four months after Pope John Paul II's death, when many young people took part in a worldwide outpouring of love for him, World Youth Day is likely to attract greater crowds than the event's previous incarnations. Up to 800,000 young people, 600 bishops and 4,000 journalists are expected to attend under the theme “We Have Come to Worship Him.”

“Young people are looking for Jesus Christ, and would like to find him in Cologne,” said Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne in early July. “Our word must be shown through our lives … and that is what the youth of the world expect from the Archdiocese of Cologne.”

Cardinal Meisner said that at the beginning of July, 400,000 young people had already registered and that even up to “2 million could be expected.”

The spiritual program for the 20th World Youth Day is comprehensive: 248 churches and halls throughout the city — including seven evangelical churches and one Orthodox church — have been designated for catechetical sessions, led by bishops from all over the world.

In addition, a “spiritual center” will be created in which 20 churches belonging to movements and religious orders in Cologne, Bonn and Düsseldorf will serve “to deepen the spirituality of young people,” according to Father Josef Funk, area manager of the World Youth Day office. The ecumenical Taizé community also will have a strong presence.

Organizers also plan pilgrimages to the “Dom,” Cologne's magnificent gothic cathedral, which possesses a famous shrine to the three Magi.

“Within three days, we expect 400,000 people to have visited the shrine of the three kings,” said Father Ulrich Hennes, secretary of World Youth Day.

Central to the events, however, will be the opportunity for young people to receive the sacrament of reconciliation in a center set up in the Koelnmesse, a large conference hall in the city. From Aug. 17-19, from 8 a.m. until midnight, approximately 100 priests will hear confessions in 30 languages there.

There will also be plenty of opportunities for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The spiritual program will “prepare us for Christ,” Father Hennes said, and “help realize the vision of the Pope to build a just and peaceful world.”

Activities Nationwide

But Cologne is not the only city organizing activities. Dioceses and young people all over Germany have been preparing and raising money for the event for the past three years.

The Schönstatt Movement, a lay apostolate aimed at renewing the world in Christ through Mary, is setting up a shrine to Our Lady as a “Covenant of Love for the Youth of the World” in Schönstatt, the town where it was founded in 1914. Already, 2,500 young people from 36 countries have shown an interest.

The parish of St. Sakrament in Düsseldorf is organizing an exhibition of pictures, music and writing centered on the Mass. It will be set up in a former air-raid shelter.

Aug. 12 has been designated the Day of Social Service, when participants will have the chance to “work to build a civilization of love and justice,” as John Paul II urged World Youth Day participants in Toronto three years ago.

Prior to the official start of World Youth Day, however, will be a program called Days of Encounter in the German Dioceses from Aug. 11-15. All German dioceses are taking part, hosting more than 120,000 young people from 162 countries.

The aim of the event is to provide foreign guests the opportunity, together with their German hosts in church and other diocesan communities, to get to know one another. They will then travel to Cologne for World Youth Day.

‘Enormous Shift’

Finally, in a highly symbolic gesture, the traditional World Youth Day cross, which is brought over land and sea to whichever country is hosting the event, is now being carried from Dresden, in the former East Germany, to Cologne over a period of 40 days.

Fifty young Catholics traveled the first 400 miles, and more youths, together with 30 German bishops, will accompany the cross on the pilgrimage to World Youth Day, passing the former Buchenwald concentration camp where the violence inflicted by the Nazis against so many young people will be remembered. The cross, weighing 68 pounds, began its journey through Europe on Palm Sunday 2003 and has been around the world several times since the tradition was begun by John Paul II in 1984.

The Cologne and Bonn city authorities have been in close cooperation with event organizers and will have buses and trams running around the clock. They have also created maps and guides for visitors on how to reach the Marienfeld, the main venue for the event.

Press Is Skeptical

There remains the question of what effect World Youth Day might have on Germany itself, a country that has, like many parts of Europe, become more secularized.

“Everyone in Germany is aware of World Youth Day,” according to Ludwig Waldmüller, a Bavarian producer in the German section of Vatican Radio. The German press has shown some skepticism about the event, or on occasions has ignored it altogether, as has happened during previous World Youth Days.

“There was a big fuss when it became clear that the Pope hadn't invited a Protestant church to the event,” said Paul Badde, Rome correspondent for the German daily Die Welt. “So they [the secular press] have been trying to make problems.”

Now, however, he says, “It's getting increasing attention.”

Waldmüller agreed. “It's not true that the press are writing very little about it,” he said. “More attention has been paid to it than previous World Youth Days, in Toronto or Paris.”

Badde, a devout Catholic, is, like many German Catholics, convinced this World Youth Day will be of historic significance.

“Here we have a Pope from the country of the Reformation returning to the country of the Reformation,” he noted, adding that the German people, often deeply entrenched in secularism, are now becoming aware that “something went wrong” in the period Chesterton termed the “shipwreck of Christendom.”

The press, Badde said, is understating this change of heart in the German people, reporting that “only 5%” of the population had come back to the Church since John Paul II's passing and Benedict's election.

“That's actually a hell of a lot,” he countered. “An enormous shift.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.