COLOGNE, Germany – Millie Duchow spent nine hours squished between young Catholics from around the world who had come to hear Pope Benedict XVI speak Thursday. When Benedict addressed the crowd outside the massive cathedral, not even a language barrier could disappoint the Spokane 16-year-old.
“I didn’t have to understand him to know what a good man he is,” Duchow said of Benedict, who arrived in his homeland Thursday on his first trip from the Vatican since becoming pope four months ago.
After Benedict’s 10-minute speech in German, Duchow stood barefoot, exhausted and happy in Roncalli Square amid her friends from the Spokane area. The 21-member group was organized by St. Mary’s parish in Spokane Valley and came to Germany for World Youth Day, a Catholic event that mixes piety and revelry.
An estimated 325,000 showed up for Benedict’s speech. His visit had been anticipated among Catholics, who have wondered how his style would differ from that of the late Pope John Paul II, who was a charismatic presence at past World Youth Day events.
The St. Mary’s group was enthusiastic about the new pope.
“All of a sudden my feet don’t hurt,” said 26-year-old Sheila Donovan.
So far, the group has experienced both religious renewal and the exuberance that comes from being part of such a massive gathering. Leader Eric Thomason has stressed the importance of going with the flow.
“I’m sorry about the delay, but we roll with the punches,” was typical of Thomason, who leads the youth ministry program at St. Mary’s.
On Tuesday, when long lines formed for food, the group sat on the sidewalk and began to pray with a group from Malawi they had met earlier. When the food never materialized, they took emergency spending money and ate out for dinner.
When the trains didn’t run often enough to handle the crowds, the group packed into already full train cars and sang praise songs alongside exuberant Italians and Spaniards. When Duchow got bonked on the head while jostling her way to a security checkpoint set up for Benedict’s arrival, her tears got them through a little faster.
The St. Mary’s group mingled with whomever crossed their path.
William and Nicholas Roach, two brothers from Pasco, struck up conversations constantly with non-English speakers using basic words and gestures to communicate. They talked about flags and shouted out phrases like “Viva España” every time they passed groups from Spain.
Their T-shirts, which said “We Love Our German Shepherd,” were also popular conversation-starters.
The Spokane group slept in Alfter, a small town near Bonn. Instead of staying in a church as Thomason had expected, parish families took them in and fed them gigantic German breakfasts, which became a popular start to long days with big gaps between meals.
For the most part, Germans in Cologne and Bonn watched with smiling incomprehension as groups of youngsters paraded through their streets, many draped in flags and most singing constantly.
Fervent displays of faith are uncommon in this largely secular country. Thousands of Germans officially leave the church each year. Many Germans disagree with Benedict’s traditional view of social issues.
Yet there is a certain amount of pride here in Benedict. “We Are Pope” has entered German popular culture after appearing as a headline in a German tabloid newspaper. On Sunday 800,000 people are expected to show up when Benedict leads a public Mass in Marienfeld, a former open-pit coal mine near Cologne.
While Benedict spoke German at the cathedral where the Spokane group saw him, earlier in the day he spoke in five languages during a boat tour along the Rhine River. Enthusiastic young people crowded the riverbanks and waded into the water toward him. Besides addressing World Youth Day pilgrims, Benedict will meet with German politicians and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities.
World Youth Day ends Sunday. The Spokane group will return stateside Monday.
Duchow said she hadn’t been sure what to expect from World Youth Day before coming to Cologne. The pope impressed and inspired her, Duchow said. Even though her feet were sore, she left the cathedral square feeling happy she could stand up for her faith.