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Pope Benedict Welcomed Home in Germany

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The first German pope in 500 years returned to his homeland today. Benedict XVI arrived in Cologne and was greeted by hundreds of thousands of cheering young people from around the world. They're taking part in the Catholic Church's World Youth Day and witnessing the new pope's first international trip. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Cologne.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Benedict XVI, an austere theologian, has a very different personality from John Paul II, and on his arrival home he did not emulate his charismatic predecessor, who liked to kiss the ground after descending from an airplane.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

POGGIOLI: Security concerns prevented the presence of large crowds at the airport, but Benedict was given a rousing welcome with young people chanting his name in Italian and giving him a soccer cheer.

(Soundbite of cheering)

POGGIOLI: Germany, its church and its history were at center stage of the arrival ceremony. German President Horst Koehler addressed the political significance for Germany that the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church is not only a native son but a German who, like many of his generation, was forced to join the Hitler Youth, in his case, helping anti-aircraft gunners.

President HORST KOEHLER (Germany): (Through Translator) A member of the so-called Flakhelfer generation has now been chosen as St. Peter's successor. This is, for me, a source of confidence 60 years after the end of the inhuman and ungodly ideology which prevailed in Germany. People around the world have also perceived this as a sign of reconciliation.

POGGIOLI: In his speech, the pope made no mention of Germany's Nazi past but focused on the strong legacy of his homeland's Christian roots. Benedict said the presence of so many young people who have come to see the pope is a sign of the church's vitality. He also urged what he called Germany's deeply entrenched faith be an incentive for renewed commitment for other peoples on the continent as well.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Through Translator) 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, which we have to revitalize and strengthen.

POGGIOLI: But the country Benedict is returning to is much more detached from the church than it was during his youth. A poll published by the weekly Der Spiegel says that only one-third of Germans have great or very great confidence in the Catholic Church, and less than half say that faith is truly an important part of their life.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Ohhh, ohhh, ohhh.

Chorus: (Singing) Ohhh, ohh, ohh, ohh.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

POGGIOLI: Although the accompanying chorus was Christian pop, Benedict's arrival into the city of Cologne was decidedly Wagnerian.

Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

POGGIOLI: Standing on the bow of a riverboat, the pope sailed along the Rhine while tens of thousands of young people cheered him from the riverbanks. The pontiff, who, until four months ago, was the severe theological watchdog Joseph Ratzinger, appeared at ease today as he waved to the crowds and listened attentively to selected young people, who came up to him, bowed and kissed his ring. Later he joined the crowds as he walked holding hands with young pilgrims from the jetty to Cologne Cathedral.

The papacy of Benedict is beginning to take on a style of its own, more austere and with a slower pace on the international stage than that of John Paul II. Church historian Alberto Meloni says this trip is expected to clarify the direction the new pontificate will follow.

Mr. ALBERTO MELONI (Church Historian): Up to now, it has been, so to say, empty of great content. So now in this next few days, many expect some statement or position or the guidelines for the future of the papacy.

POGGIOLI: Tomorrow Benedict will make a landmark visit to Cologne's synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 and rebuilt in the 1950s. It will be just the second papal visit to a Jewish house of worship in 2,000 years, the first by a German pope. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Cologne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.