COLOGNE, Germany -- They slept in a dew-soaked field, packed head to toe, and awoke yesterday under heavy gray skies to hear Pope Benedict XVI urge his youthful followers to live a life of faith and to work to spread it.
An estimated 1 million pilgrims from every corner of the planet attended the pope's open-air Mass, culminating weeklong World Youth Day festivities and the new pontiff's international debut.
Freedom granted by God "is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy, but rather about living by the measure of truth and goodness, so that we ourselves can become true and good," he told the crowd, offering the central moral prescription of his four-day appearance here. "This gesture is necessary even if initially our yearning for freedom makes us inclined to resist it."
The slightly soggy crowd applauded. After a cold night and dark morning, the sun burst through clouds as Pope Benedict started to speak from a hill overlooking the masses, who cuddled in sleeping bags and waved flags of every stripe, star and color.
World Youth Day was started 20 years go by Pope Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and the new pope's presence was seen as a test of his ability to charm the crowds and to achieve his broader agenda of reaching out to other faiths, promoting dialogue and saving Christian souls.
As a German-born pope coming home to Germany, expectations were especially high.
Pope Benedict had said before arriving that his goal was to spark "a new impulse" in the Roman Catholic faith and to show "how beautiful it is to be a Christian." Whether he met that test remains to be seen.
While he did not appear to exhibit the same magical exuberance of his charismatic predecessor, Pope Benedict did connect to many people on individual levels and deftly handled difficult issues, among them meetings with Jews and Muslims that were both symbolic and substantive.
At every step he emphasized the importance of Christian identity.
Lamenting a "strange forgetfulness of God" throughout modern society, he cautioned that religion cannot be a "consumer product."
"Religion constructed on a 'do-it-yourself' basis cannot ultimately help us," said the pope, wearing a golden miter. "Anyone who has discovered Christ must lead others to him. A great joy cannot be kept to oneself. It has to be passed on."
Yesterday's Mass was held on the outskirts of Cologne at Marienfeld, or Mary's Field, a stretch of land once used to stripmine coal.
The presence of the youth here is organized by churches, dioceses and lay organizations, such as the conservative Opus Dei, which was especially well-represented this year.
While some youths were here for fun, many did seek a religious meaning.
John Sikorski, 20, a junior at Notre Dame University from Park City, Utah, said World Youth Day for him was a life-changing experience.
"It gives greater courage to me to stand up for my faith, to not be ashamed, to share my faith with others," he said in an interview before yesterday's ceremony.
Undoubtedly, Pope Benedict was aware during his four-day trip to Germany that he was being compared, at every turn, with Pope John Paul. He held to his intellectual approach to religion; at times, he appeared uncomfortable before crowds, and he sometimes spoke so softly that he could not be heard.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.