COLOGNE, Germany — Any doubts about how the world's youth would respond to Pope Benedict XVI were shattered during World Youth Day 2005.

From the larger-than-expected crowd that stretched for several miles along both sides of the Rhine River to the estimated 1.1 million participants at the final Mass at Marienfeld, organizers were surprises that they received nearly double the pilgrims they expected, as well as double the priests.

Pope Benedict XVI's addresses were frequently interrupted by shouts of “Be-ne-de-to, Be-ne-de-to!” by those gathered to hear him.

As with the past 19 World Youth Day celebrations, youth from countries around the globe converged to share the Catholic faith they hold in common. According to statistics offered by the World Youth Day Communications Office, the final official number of registered pilgrims was 415,178 from 197 countries. Of those, 79% were from Europe, with the top five countries being Italy (101,174), Germany (83,939), France (38,549), Spain (31,908), and the U.S. (24,237).

“We came to show Germany our support for Pope Benedict,” said Italian pilgrim David Manasse, a system administrator from Garda Lake. “He is an important symbol for us and for our country.”

The theme of this year's event, which was continually revisited by Pope Benedict, was “We Have Come to Worship Him,” based upon the visit of the Magi to the Christ-child. Cologne's magnificent Cathedral, which was the site for pilgrimages during this year's event, houses a distinct reliquary that holds the purported remains of the three Wise Men.

Recalling Christ speaking to crowds on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Pope Benedict gave his opening remarks Aug. 18 from a boat on the Rhine. He said, “It is true that today we are no longer looking for a king, but we are concerned for the state of the world and we are asking: Where do I find standards to live by? What are the criteria that govern responsible cooperation in building the present and the future of our world? On whom can I rely?”

The Holy Father challenged the young people to commit themselves to Christ.

“I encourage you to commit yourselves without reserve to serving Christ, whatever the cost,” he said.

Pilgrims lined both sides of the river for miles, many standing in the water up to their ankles and waists, holding banners and their national flags.

The Pope described Thursday's welcoming ceremony as, “an explosion of joy,” said Msgr. Heiner Koch, general secretary for World Youth Day in Cologne.

Crowds continued to build, with some 800,000 joining the Pope for Aug.20's vigil, and more than 1 million for the Aug. 21 Mass.

John Paul II's Presence

The late Pope John Paul II was ever-present during the event he started in 1986 in virtually every address, as well as in spirit and posters.

Two immense posters hung opposite Cologne's Cathedral — one, a mosaic of Pope John Paul II made up of thousands of images of people from around the world read “Thank You John Paul II.” The other, of Pope Benedict XVI, said, “Welcome.”

Prior to and at the start of World Youth Day, Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner said that this World Youth Day “was being celebrated with two popes — one from heaven above, and one from earth.”

“Today it is my turn to take up this extraordinary spiritual legacy bequeathed to us by Pope John Paul II,” said Pope Benedict during the welcoming celebration on the Rhine. “He loved you — you realized that and you returned his love with all your youthful enthusiasm,” said the Holy Father.

On Thursday evening, thousands of Poles, silently waving hundreds of red-and-white flags in a moving tribute, spontaneously gathered in the square outside the Cathedral before Pope John Paul's poster.

Prior to Aug. 20's vigil, Pope Benedict XVI blessed a special bell named after Pope John Paul II. That bell was used in subsequent prayer services and the final Mass.

One pilgrim explained the attitude of the young toward the two popes.

“The young loved John Paul because they knew him,” said Sara Lockwood from Washington, D.C. “They are willing to love Pope Benedict because he is Pope, they just don't know him yet.”

After having spent four days with the new Pope, many young people feel like they already know him better.

“He communicated and listened to everyone,” said Alexander Pavkovic, a blind pilgrim who was one of 12 invited to have lunch with the Holy Father Aug. 19.

“I love the new Pope,” said Tim Suttie, a civil engineering student at Sydney University in Australia. “We couldn't have asked for a better person. He will certainly carry on the excellent work of John Paul II.”

“John Paul was very popular because of his long time and his charisma,” said Benedikt Moellering from Muenster, Germany. “The new Pope has to work hard. He doesn't have that charisma, but it will come, I think.”

Similar but Different

It was difficult not to note the similarities and differences of this World Youth Day when compared with previous events.

One significant difference was the decision to hold events concurrently in the cities of Bonn, Cologne and Düsseldorf. Having pilgrims in three cities made transportation difficult, and made it hard for young people to gather with one another.

“I felt isolated out in Düsseldorf,” said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in Cologne Aug. 19 as he prepared to make his pilgrimage to the Cathedral. “I was placed there because that is where my catechesis session was scheduled.”

Another significant difference was the addition of several meetings between Pope Benedict and various groups, including Jewish leaders, Islamic leaders and ecumenical leaders in Cologne. At a mid-point during the festivities, he made a historic visit to Cologne's rebuilt synagogue, which had previously been destroyed by the Nazis.

“It was a gift of God that the visit to the synagogue was placed at the middle of the Pope's visit,” said Msgr. Koch. “It is at the core of World Youth Day.”

Jewish leaders described Pope Benedict as “pontifex maximus — a builder of bridges.”

In another World Youth Day first, Pope Benedict decided to meet separately with a group of seminarians. On Aug. 19, more than 5,000 priests and seminarians gathered at St. Pantaleon Church in southern Cologne. There, Pope Benedict told the men considering the priesthood that he had added the meeting, “so that the vocational dimension which is always a part of World Youth Day would be even more clearly and strongly evident.”

Parish Events

The majority of the week's events took place in individual parishes throughout all three cities. Here, the young participated in Mass, the sacrament of reconciliation, and participated in more than 248 catechetical sessions offered by bishops from around the world. Approximately 750 bishops were in attendance.

In a departure from previous World Youth Days, rather than performing a single, public Way of the Cross Aug. 19, the devotion took place in individual parishes that evening.

The following day, despite severe transportation problems, pilgrims from all three cities descended upon Marienfeld for the evening prayer vigil and final Mass on Sunday. Because of the multiple venues, it was the first time that all of the young people were gathered together in a single space.

The most common response of the attendees was the understanding that the Church is much larger than their local parish.

“It gives me a new excitement for my faith,” said Alyson Gaskins of Visalia, Calif. “It's not just an American faith; it's a worldwide Church.”

“It's exciting to see the worldwide community of faith and hear all the different languages,” said Matt Maes from Atlanta. “It helps you to discover the fullness of what it means to be Catholic and universal.”

The youths, however, were not the only ones impressed by the events. So, too were non-Catholics and others.

“I have never seen anything like this,” said Paul Speigel, President of the Central Council of Jews. “As a non-Catholic you are drawn to what is going on here. The young people are so happy. They have literally come here to proclaim their faith.”

The pilgrimage was not without its problems. Many youths were not able to obtain their food, and on several occasions, trains stopped running.

“There were some glitches, but I think it's because they didn't expect so many people,” said Duluth, Minn. Bishop Dennis Schnurr who helped plan 1993's World Youth Day in Denver.

Still, the young and old accepted the setbacks as part of the challenge of a pilgrimage.

“There is always suffering before,” said Matilde, a 21-year-old English teacher from Normandy, France.

“How often do you see kids jubilantly wearing God on their outside?” asked Elizabeth Meier, of Hartland, Wis. “They have traveled halfway across the world. It just gives me so much joy that you want to burst.”

Even secular journalists felt the impact of the week's events.

“We are an aging society,” said German Nils Keimeier, who works with the Financial Times Deutschland. “When you see that many young people on the streets, it's a new thing. You can imagine what society could look like.”