The most critical comment I heard, from the hundreds of young people I talked to, was that they didn't know him. The vast majority that admitted they didn't know the man also admitted that they are quite willing to give him a chance.
Clearly, he's no John Paul II.
He didn't kiss the ground when he arrived on his home soil. He always kept extremely close to his texts, only changing a word or two in all of his some 15 speeches. He is less spontaneous. He uses less gestures and talks less personally of himself. He didn't weave the popemobile through the crowd, though he mentioned that he wanted to during his closing remarks at Marienfeld. The massive amount of people and the lack of clear roadways made it impossible.
So, he's no JPII, and that's okay with the young. They recognize that he is his own man - a man of books, and concepts, and ideas. His talks on adoration, the Eucharist, and vocation were clear and direct, and the young responded very positively to his messages (interrupting his vigil 12 times and the final Mass 16 times for applause). The applause was loudest when his remarks were most challenging - observing Sunday Mass, imitating the saints.
The media pool was extremely limited, and I was the only American reporter lucky enough to be included inside the blue-domed, brown stone structure that was rebuilt in the 1950s after being destroyed by the Nazis. With his hands humbly clasped in front of him, the Pope walked into the main hall as the choir sang, ''Shalom alechem,'' or ''peace be with you." After two Hebrew hymns, and the blowing of the shofar ram's horn, the son of a Holocaust survivor and then the synagogue's rabbi spoke. When it came time for Benedict to rise, his remarks wouldn't stray much from the original text. But there was something happening that went beyond words. It was in the way the Pope listened so intently to his hosts. It was the warm, two-hand embrace he shared with the young rabbi. It was in the somber cadence of his voice as he recounted Nazi atrocities, and the utter silence in the synagogue to hear his every breath. It was, in other words, in the German Pope's very presence, which was his own initiative as soon as his trip was scheduled to come to Cologne for the Catholic World Youth day. The synogogue's standing ovation for Benedict was confirmation that German Jews appreciated the gesture.
But why didn't Papa Ratzinger make even one small reference to his own experience? In a press conference later this afternoon, Karl Cardinal Lehman, the head of the German Bishops Conference, quite naturally referred to being nine years old and remembering people in his town taken away, never to return. John Paul II spoke about his own experiences every chance he could, about knowing Jews who were deported from his hometown in Poland. But perhaps Benedict, beyond a basic human shyness, also sees his role differently than his predecessor. He doesn't want to impose his own persona on the pontificate. He doesn't want his life's story to represent the Church's. He wants his words to educate as much as inspire. As a colleague who accompanied John Paul on his own first homecoming after his election, remarked yesterday: "Wojtyla was much more the Polish Pope than Ratzinger is a German Pope." John Paul was also of course a globetrotter. And perhaps after more than 20 years as a top Vatican official—and 24 hours of his first foreign trip—Benedict seems destined to be very much a Roman Pope.
Rocco Palmo's got an interesting post on "heroes and goats" of WYD - I disagree that Cdnl. Marini is a "hero." I have no problem with certain elements that grate on various other observers: Processional movement/dance that's appropriate to various cultures in which it's traditional, and so on, but for pete's sake, in what culture do they JUGGLE HATS in the middle of vigil prayer? I mean, really. As Michael pointed out, if you want to have some talent show be a part of the proceedings, to showcase the talents of youth throughout the world to the world and in front of the Pope, please do. Grand idea. But why do you have to have hat-juggling during a prayer service?
I also don't share Rocco's bad vibes on Sydney. I think it's a great idea, and entirely appropriate. Too bad for Europeans and North Americans if it takes us longer to get there - it's fantastic for the young Catholics of Oceania, Asia and other points south.
A couple more thoughts before I must use my long yearned-for solitude to do some actual work.
First, on language. Wouldn't it be a great idea if, in the three years before Sydney, the call went out to teach young people everywhere the Pater Noster, Ave Maria and Sign of the Cross in Latin? We could avoid all of the "Ohmygawdprevaticantwo" tremors by saying how AWESOME it would be for hundreds of thousands of young people to be able to actually pray together in one language in 2008 - what a powerful symbol and experience it would be. If we could just tease such a modest goal out from other agendas and fears, it could be a great moment.
Secondly, on the pope. People fret about this event becoming a Pope-centered event. Seems to me that one of the prime reasons such a thing is at risk of happening is because that's all the press focuses on. "Whaddya think of the Pope?" is the question du jour after the event rather than, "How did this whole experience impact your faith?"
I'm just so tired of the need to constantly evaluate performance of this pope, or, in fact of any public figure. Yes, we live in a world of media and the impressions generated by it, but there really is more to life and human experience, folks, than style. There is more to a leader than how he or she weaves a personal narrative into the task at hand. The post-WYD evaluation of B16 hasn't been as bad as I anticipated, but it still has ignored so much. The coverage of the homily, for example, focused primarily on the last part, in which the Pope spoke of DIY religion, going to Mass on Sunday, etc. But nary a word about the wonderfully powerful first two-thirds, in which the Pop spoke on transformation - on letting the bread and wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ then transform us, and finally, transform the world, as we work, in Communion with the Lord, into turning death into life.
Can't put that into a headline, I guess.