Pope 'Benedetto' arrives as Germany rolls out red carpet for one of its own

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The Independent Online

The Pope's four-day excursion to the Catholic World Youth Day in the Rhineland city of Cologne was the Pontiff's first major foreign trip since his election last April and had been scheduled for the late Pope John Paul II.

Benedict XVI did not follow his predecessor's practice of kissing the ground after stepping off his Alitalia plane and he lost his white skullcap in a gust of wind. He told hundreds of cheering believers: "I never imagined that my first visit abroad as Pope would be to Germany."

However, Germany rolled out the red carpet for the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. President Horst Köhler, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and more than 400,000 young Catholics were on hand to greet the Pope in the ancient cathedral city.

"We are glad that you are one of us," said President Köhler in a welcoming speech which referred to the Pope's brief wartime role as an anti-aircraft flak gunner in the German army. "As a member of that generation, your election is a sign of reconciliation 60 years after the end of the war," he said.

In an opening speech frequently interrupted by chants of "Benedetto, Benedetto" - his name in Italian - the Pope said he was delighted by the welcome given to him in his "beloved fatherland" and said he hoped to help young people view their lives as a "pilgrimage" in search of God.

Today the Pope will hold talks with members of Cologne's Jewish and Muslim communities and visit a synagogue, rebuilt after being destroyed by the Nazis. The Pope described the talks as part of his efforts to "build a just and brotherly future through dialogue."

The World Youth Day festival was inspired by John Paul II and is held in a different part of the world each year. Yesterday the Pope was fêted by thousands of young Catholics from throughout Europe and further abroad who gathered on the banks of the Rhine as the Pontiff crossed the river by boat from the bishop's palace on the east bank to attend Mass at the cathedral. The Cologne authorities had renamed the boat BXVI for the trip.

The highlight of his visit will be an open-air Mass held on the site of a former coal mine outside the city centre on Sunday. The Pope has stressed that he hopes to inspire "a wave of new faith" among young Europeans whom he claims have bowed to consumerism and lost touch with religion.

However, to many of the visitors at the Cologne event the new Pope appeared to be a much shyer and less charismatic figure than his legendary predecessor. "What young people see in the new Pope is continuity," said Richard Fossey, a university professor from Houston, Texas, who was accompanying a group of Catholic students to Cologne. "They know that he is not going to change anything and that is reassuring in these troubled times," he added.

The German media has pointed out that the majority of young people attending the World Youth Day celebrations are not Germans but young Catholics from Italy, Spain and France.

Germans' waning interest in religion was shown by an opinion poll last week which suggested that most people trusted the police and a supermarket chain more than the Pope with his reputation for hard-line orthodoxy.

Young British Catholics attending the festival did not appear to be concerned by Benedict's rejection of birth control, homosexuality and sex outside marriage: "This is not necessarily all about the Pope," said 18-year-old Richard Cheeseborough from London. "It is about meeting lots of young people from all over the world. You can talk to anyone. The atmosphere is fantastic."