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Spotlight awaits Benedict on trip home

800,000 expected for Youth Day Mass in Germany

VATICAN CITY -- The crowd will be the same, but the star on the stage will be different. Pope Benedict is scheduled to begin his first international trip on Thursday and everyone will be watching his every move.

The 78-year-old German will go to Cologne in his homeland for four days to conclude World Youth Day, a Catholic festival that takes place in a different city every few years.

But this one will be different. It will be the first without the man who founded the event that draws hundreds of thousands of Catholic youth from around the globe: Pope John Paul II.

Although he seems to have shed some stage fright since his election four months ago, Benedict is clearly not as comfortable with the limelight as was John Paul, a former actor who relished an opportunity to bring a crowd to its feet.

''Every pope has his own personality and one should not expect a copy of Pope John Paul," said Karl Lehmann, Germany's senior cardinal. ''But nor would Pope Benedict attempt to replicate him."

Still, although Benedict knows he can never mesmerize young people the way his predecessor did, he will have to build on John Paul's efforts to draw more of them back to a church diminished by dwindling attendance figures.

According to statistics from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, the number of Christians in Western Europe will continue to fall in the next two decades while Islam will grow.

In his first interview since his election the pope told Vatican Radio he hoped young people would see Christianity as fresh nourishment for modern living rather than as a stale spiritual meal warmed up repeatedly for the past 2,000 years.

''I want to show them it's beautiful to be a Christian. Many people think Christianity is a bunch of rules, prohibitions, and dogmas you have to follow, and therefore it's a heavy load."

About 800,000 young people are expected to attend the culminating event of World Youth Day on Sunday, when the pope celebrates Mass on an open field.

''He has his own qualities and I think he is able to speak to young people in a very convincing, engaging way," Lehmann said.

Benedict expressed concern about the future of mainstream Christian Churches in a talk to priests in July.

''The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying," he said, adding that the Western world seemed to be ''tired of its own culture, a world where there's no longer evidence for a need of God, even less of Christ."

According to a recent Vatican report, participation at Sunday Mass in some developed countries is as low as 5 percent.

The fact that the pope's first trip abroad will be to his homeland came by chance rather than choice. The World Youth Day venue was chosen years before his election and was to have been presided over by John Paul.

He will also hold meetings with Jews, Muslims, and Protestants, and be given a native-son greeting by political leaders.

Perhaps the key event outside the youth festival will his visit to the Cologne synagogue, making him only the second pope since the early history of the Roman Catholic Church 2,000 years ago to visit a Jewish temple.

In the country that spawned the Holocaust, the gesture speaks volumes about efforts to improve relations with Jews.

Last May, in his first major address about the Nazi era, the pope condemned ''the genocide of the Jews" and said humanity must never be allowed to forget or repeat such atrocious crimes.

Benedict served briefly in the Hitler Youth when membership of the paramilitary organization was compulsory. But he was never a member of the Nazi party, and his family opposed Hitler.

Lehmann placed great significance on the synagogue meeting. ''We know that we can never overcome our past. It will always be in our living memory; we will not experience a normalization of the horrors which took place," the cardinal said.

''It will always be with us, in our conscience . . . There had to be a meeting of the pope with the heirs of Germany's once-large Jewish population, people who lost their families and who have returned to Germany to live with us," he said.

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