Pope John Paul II was always going to be a hard act to follow, and the three-yearly World Youth Day was an event that had especially played to his strengths. For his scholarly successor, who lacks his personal magnetism and exuberance, it constitutes a particular challenge. Wisely, when he first set foot on German soil yesterday, Pope Benedict sent the first signal that he would be his own man. He chose not to kiss the ground in emulation of his globe-trotting predecessor; instead, he walked purposefully to greet the German reception committee.
The new Pope's opening remarks also struck an appropriate note. He said he hoped not only to "enliven their hope", but to "receive something from them ... which will help encourage me in my role and to face the challenges of the future". If this means that the Catholic Church under his leadership will not be immune to change and will listen more to the concerns of the faithful, then those who forecast an ultra-conservative papacy under Benedict's leadership may have been too pessimistic.
More immediately hopeful was the manner in which the new Pope went out of his way to speak of reaching out to other faiths, specifically to Jews and Muslims. In part this was a necessary counterweight to some early mistakes of his diplomacy when he appeared to link Islam and terrorism. More obviously, it was dictated by Germany's history and by the Pope's brief involvement, as a teenager, in the Hitler Youth movement.
Nonetheless, to visit the Cologne synagogue, rebuilt after Kristallnacht, on the first day of his trip, conveyed a particularly forceful message. As did his talk of "dialogue" and the need to build a "just and brotherly future". It is testimony to the progress made in recent years that Benedict is only the second pope to have visited a synagogue. The first was John Paul II.
For all the justified misgivings many harbour about his conservatism, the reception accorded the German Pope in his homeland testifies to a new climate of national pride and ecumenicism. After John Paul's death, there was a feeling among Germans that history still weighed too heavily on their country and on Vatican-German relations for a German ever to accede to the see of Rome. Benedict XVI has a unique opportunity. He should use it to prove his critics wrong.Reuse content