COLOGNE, Germany - On a mission to reclaim the wavering souls of Christianity's young generation, Pope Benedict XVI made his first foreign pilgrimage yesterday in a test of his ability to woo a crowd and to build bridges to other faiths.
Returning to his German homeland for the first time since his election as pope four months ago, Pope Benedict arrived in this graceful Rhineland city to lead World Youth Day. Hundreds of thousands of young Roman Catholics are coming from all over the world for the weeklong carnival.
"Say your own 'yes' to God," the pope told crowds that lined the Rhine River to greet him. "Dear young people, the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy, has a name and a face: It is Jesus of Nazareth."
The pope preached from the bow of a flower-bedecked ferry that cruised down the Rhine and docked at Cologne's double-spired Gothic cathedral. His white cassock whipped by the wind, he called on the faithful and un-baptized alike to find room in their hearts for God.
Thousands of pilgrims clustered along the riverbanks, and many waded thigh-deep into the waters to catch a glimpse of the pontiff. Five boats of pilgrims plied the waters alongside the pope's vessel, all waving brightly colored flags from more than 100 nations.
For this highly intellectual and conservative pope, few theological issues are more important than the revival of Christian identity, which he sees as being threatened by increased secularism and permissiveness.
Germany in many ways embodies the problem: Church attendance is down, half of the country's Christians aren't Catholic, and those who are frequently diverge from Vatican teachings.
Winning over youth, especially in Europe, is key to "the church's vitality," Pope Benedict said.
"Here we find a rich cultural and spiritual heritage which even today, in the heart of Europe, testifies to the fruitfulness of the Christian faith and tradition," he said.
The pope also is using this most high-profile activity of his papacy to date to cast an agenda that includes reaching out to other religions - though, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before his elevation, he was frequently dismissive of other faiths.
The pope will meet today with Jewish leaders at a synagogue that was rebuilt after its destruction in 1938 by the Nazis. He will become only the second pope to enter a synagogue, and the fact that he is a German who once belonged to the Hitler Youth movement gives the gesture added resonance.
Tomorrow, Pope Benedict will meet with Muslim leaders, a particularly significant overture in today's climate of fear involving radical Islam.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.