Benedict to use Cologne visit to 'spark wave of new faith' worldwide

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The Independent Online

On Thursday, the Pope, 78, will arrive in the Rhineland city of Cologne to attend World Youth Day, a large and meticulously organised Catholic festival which is expected to attract more than half a million mainly young people from Germany and abroad.

The visit will be the German Pontiff's first foreign trip since he was elected in April. In an interview with Vatican Radio yesterday he said he hoped his appearance would "spark a wave of new faith among young people".

However, much of Germany's media poured cold water on the Pope's aspirations. Der Spiegel devoted its front cover to the visit and carried the headline: "Believers - desperately sought. The Pope's homecoming to an un-Christian country."

The magazine also published a poll in which Germans were asked to name whom they most trusted. The police topped the list, followed by Aldi, the country's largest cut-price supermarket chain, and, only then, the Pope. Among non-believing Germans, only 18 per cent said that they trusted the Pope.

Some of the difficulty stems from the reputation Benedict earned in Germany prior to his election. As Cardinal Joseph Ratz-inger, he was known as a severe enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy - at odds with modern Germans and their acceptance of birth control, homosexuality and sex outside marriage.

The other problem is a steady decline in the number of people attending mass. Hundreds of Catholic, and Protestant, churches have been turned into shops, pubs and cinemas in attempts to find worthwhile uses for the buildings.

The dilemma has worsened since reunification and the addition to the population of some 17 million Communist-educated and largely agnostic or atheist former East Germans.

"This country trains more orthopaedic shoe manufacturers and horse grooms than Catholic priests," said Der Spiegel. "In the east German city of Magdeburg, only 8 per cent of the new-born are baptised," it added.

Young Germans are likely to be in a minority at World Youth Day with most attendees from the Catholic heartlands of Spain, Italy and France.

"For most young people, a Nike sport shoe says more about a person than membership of the church," said Matthias Sellmann, a specialist in Catholic ethics. "The church is dealing with a generation that communicates with symbols and not through concepts, discourse and agendas."

The Pope's appearance in the Alps this summer, when he was seen wearing "Serengeti" sunglasses, a baseball cap and a Cartier watch, is unlikely to persuade World Youth Day participants of any new-found ability to communicate with the younger generation.

For many young Germans, the Pope remains the prime advocate of deeply unfashionable Catholic orthodoxy. "I go to church when I feel the need to," said a 20-year-old woman who will be attending the celebrations in Cologne. "I don't go there to get lectured at for an hour by somebody who is far too old."