August 16, 2005

Young people arrive in Cologne for Catholic festival

By Alexandra Hudson

COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - Gray skies and drizzle greeted
thousands of young Catholics arriving in Cologne for World
Youth Day on Tuesday but they cheered nonetheless, waving
national flags and shouting boisterous "olas" and "hellos."

The five-day Catholic youth festival has attracted 405,000
participants who will pray and discuss with young believers
from almost 200 nations.

Pope John Paul pioneered the event that his successor
Benedict will preside over from Thursday.

"It's the most peaceful invasion of all time," popular
newspaper Bild newspaper wrote on Tuesday.

Bemused residents of Germany's fourth-largest city smiled
patiently as pilgrims thronged outside the city's massive
Gothic cathedral, some strumming guitars, others poring over
maps to find one of three Masses opening the "Catholic

"The whole city is full of young people," Cologne's
Cardinal Joachim Meisner told an opening news conference,
adding how proud he was to have been one of those involved in
the planning of the 100-million euro festival over the last
three years.

"This is the first World Youth Day with two popes, one
watching from above and the other taking part here below."


Cologne has hosted pilgrimages since medieval times when
Catholics flocked to its imposing cathedral which houses the
relics of the Magi, the three kings who the bible says visited
the newborn Jesus, but has never seen anything on this scale.

"I think we may have travelled the furthest," said
17-year-old Mercedes Docampo from Tasmania, struggling to hold
her luggage, inflatable kangaroo and huge Australian flag.

"I came because I wanted to appreciate the size of the
Catholic Church and share my faith with other young people."

Ania Cieslinska, a 21-year-old student from Krakow in
Poland, said the loss of Pope John Paul had not deterred Poles
from coming and she was eager to see Pope Benedict.

"We prayed he (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) would become
Pope, because we knew he would continue the legacy of Pope John
Paul," she said.

While the crowds of happy, noisy youngsters made the
pilgrimage look like just another festival, many said they came
especially for the chance to strengthen their faith and
identity as Catholics.

"I wanted to meet other young Catholics from all over the
world," said 30-year-old Desire Ilboudo from Burkina Faso.

Pope Benedict smiled from posters around Cologne's
pedestrian precincts, and the city's churches flung their doors
wide open to welcome their international visitors.

Stages hosting Christian rock bands have sprung up around
the city and hundreds of temporary toilets line the banks of
the Rhine River.

But Cologne's one million citizens may find their good
cheer strained as they faced five-days of road blocks, crowded
trams and trains, constant hymn-singing by excitable youngsters
and rattling tambourines.

"No Pope" was scrawled across a rail platform sign close to
World Youth Day headquarters.