Questions about Pope Benedict XVI’s ability to connect with young people were decisively answered at World Youth Day in Cologne last month. He connects, all right. And the “connection” is through the same “connection” that binds the entire Church together – the Holy Eucharist.
In four days of winsome, challenging catechesis, during which he called the youth of the world to ponder “the inconceivable greatness of a God who humbled himself even to appearing in a manger, to giving himself as food on the altar,” Pope Benedict returned time and again to the Eucharist and the Magi (whose relics, tradition holds, are preserved in the Cologne cathedral). Like John Paul the Great, Benedict XVI did not come to World Youth Day to say “Look at me.” Like his papal predecessor, Benedict asked his young followers to look to Christ, to the redeemer worshiped by the Magi at Bethlehem. According to one etymology, “Bethlehem” derives from the Hebrew for “House of Bread.” That is where the Magi found the One they sought. And that is where young people – indeed all of us – will find the truth we seek: in the “House of Bread” that is the Eucharist.
“We have come to worship him,” a phrase from of the infancy narrative in St. Matthew’s gospel, was the theme of World Youth Day 2005; Pope Benedict seized on it from the moment of his arrival in Germany. In his first extended public remarks, he spoke of “the great procession of the faithful, called ‘the Church’.” In the Church, he suggested, we follow the Magi in their search for the One to whom worship is due; and that is why the city of the Magi’s relics was an appropriate venue for a global Catholic celebration of faith.
Yes, the Pope said, these men in Matthew’s Christmas story were just men, and their relics “are indeed just human bones.” But these are the bones of “individuals touched by the transcendent power of God.” Cologne, and the relics of the Magi, had been a pilgrimage destination for centuries. Now, in August 2005, that tradition of pilgrimage to the great Gothic cathedral on the Rhine was being revivified. For here in Cologne, the young people of the Church were discovering “the joy of belonging to a family as vast as the world, including heaven and earth, the past, the present, and the future.”
In the Basilica of the Nativity in March 2000, John Paul II had spoken of Bethlehem as a place where “we are called to see more clearly that time has meaning because here Eternity entered history and remains with us forever.” Benedict XVI made the connection between Bethlehem and the Eucharist in a moving address at the Vigil service at Marianfeld outside Cologne on the last night of World Youth Day 2005. He reminded the vast, youthful congregation that Luke’s gospel account “is not a distant story that took place long ago. It is with us now. Here in the sacred Host he is present before us and in our midst…He is present now as he was then in Bethlehem. He invites us to that inner pilgrimage which is called adoration.”
Whatever else may eventually be said about the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, the experience of World Youth Day 2005 confirms the intuition that many had in Rome during those remarkable days in April, five brief months ago: this will be a great catechetical papacy. Joseph Ratzinger has long had a striking ability to bring the depths of Christian truth to life in a language accessible to everyone, with a simplicity that comes from the most profound erudition. Now, that ability is being displayed on a global stage.
And, again like his great predecessor, Benedict XVI is demonstrating that what the 21st century world craves is not Catholic Lite, but a demanding faith – a faith proclaimed with confidence, humility, and joy by a Church that has taken seriously the Second Vatican Council’s challenge to nourish its spiritual and intellectual life on the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, and the great masters of theology throughout the ages.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.