“Bring me what they're having.”

That's what Pope Benedict XVI said during a special luncheon he had with 12 young people at World Youth Day in Cologne. He rejected a special trout lunch prepared just for him, and had the ordinary omelet lunch prepared for the pilgrims. The 12 who ate lunch with him said it was a special moment of solidarity with the Pope.

But “I want what they have” was a sentiment staff writer Tim Drake heard often from observers at World Youth Day.

One can only imagine how invigorating World Youth Day is from the Holy Father's perspective.

Benedict remarked to a friend that his reaction to the throngs of cheering young people there to meet him was “an explosion of joy.” In his opening remarks, he said a Pope receives much from the youth, “especially from their enthusiasm, their sensitivity and their readiness to face the challenges of the future.”

In Toronto in 2003, newspapers were highly skeptical and in some cases openly hostile to the event as World Youth Day began. By the end, editorialists and columnists were gushing about the joy and good behavior of pilgrims.

Drake found the same phenomenon when he spoke with secular observers in Cologne. He asked one older German woman who works near the Cathedral what she thought about all these young people filling up her neighborhood.

“It is wonderful, wonderful,” she said. “It is wonderful to see so many young people happy.”

The Australian government's minister of tourism attended World Youth Day to prepare himself for the next World Youth Day, which will be held in Sydney in 2008.

“I have never seen anything like this,” he said. “I can't tell you what it's done for me to see such a congregation of humanity — so happy and well-behaved.”

Our culture often dreams of a world in which people from all walks of life, from all the continents in the world, gather together in peace and harmony to celebrate love and life — but they never actually see it. They certainly didn't at the widely criticized Live 8 concerts this summer, for instance.

But the special quality of the pilgrims was obvious.

Drake described how Italian pilgrims mobbed passing bishops or priests to get blessings. A group of African pilgrims was stranded waiting for a bus and, instead of sitting dejectedly or listening to iPods, they sang and danced. Groups from other countries joined in.

At the same time, it would be naïve to expect that the hundreds of thousands of young people at Cologne all understood Church teaching and were fully committed to the Church's doctrines.

Catholic Answers passed out primers on the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict himself was guarded about the religious fervor in his final homily of World Youth Day.

He talked about a “new explosion of religion” in our day. “I have no wish to discredit all the manifestations of this phenomenon. There may be sincere joy in the discovery,” he said. “Yet, if it is pushed too far, religion becomes almost a consumer product. People choose what they like, and some are even able to make a profit from it.”

He added: “Religion constructed on a ‘do-it-youself’ basis cannot ultimately help us. Help people to discover the true star that points out the way to us: Jesus Christ.”

Nevertheless, it was precisely challenging statements from the Pope like these which drew the biggest cheers from the crowd. Whatever some of the participants lacked in doctrinal formation, they clearly enjoyed hearing tough truths spoken with authority.

“I've celebrated Mass for tens of thousands of people, but here there was a real sense of reverence and reconciliation,” said Sydney, Australia, Cardinal George Pell. “It was a great tribute to the spirit of the Holy Father himself.”

Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner noticed also.

“I started crying when I saw how the young people received the host,” he said, “and I had to pull myself together as a bishop.”

We can learn quite a bit from the young people at World Youth Day.

These were people with none of the hang-ups of the past that older Catholics struggle with. In a country with one of the largest organized dissenting Catholic groups in the world, Catholic dissent was invisible and Catholic devotions were unavoidable.

They sang about Jesus, chanted and prayed. They frequented adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and confession. They weren't seeking celebrity. They were there for one reason — fellowship with each other and with God.

As one young man told Tim Drake, “We are here to celebrate Christ. The Pope is like icing on the cake.”