Benedict XVI's maiden papal voyage began today with cheering pilgrims and a retinue of reporters and bishops and bodyguards following his every step. Looming over the German pontiff's emotional homecoming, though, is Pope John Paul II and his imposing legacy of global outreach. John Paul not only racked up the miles104 foreign trips during his 26-year papacyhe also had a natural gift for leaving both spiritual and political footprints almost anywhere he touched down (and kissed the ground): subtly undermining the Communist regime with emotional sermons in his native Poland; challenging breakaway priests of Latin America's "liberation theology"; reaching out with an old man's wisdom at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall.
Among the departed pontiff's favorite destinations were the World Youth Day celebrations that he created 20 years ago to gather the globe's young Catholics every few years for prayer, teachings and music. Providence would beckon when he closed his last World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002 by announcing that the next edition would be here in Cologne. That meant that three years later and four months after the Vatican's German-born doctrinal chief Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope, the first WYD without John Paul would turn into a homecoming for his successor. And Benedict seemed genuinely moved by his arrival on a warm, sunny day, carrying a beaming smile throughout a series of encounters with local authorities, and the flocks and flocks of screaming and chanting and waving young people.
The view of the man in white (with perfectly matching dove-white hair) was majestic from the press pool boat that chugged alongside the luxury ferry carrying the Pope along the Rhine as he stood on a pedestal near the bow and waved at crowds of pilgrims along the river bank. On the opposite shore, dozens of young faithful waded in up to their thighs, making the Rhine momentarily seem more like the Ganges. The coming days will also test the new Pope's mettle on the political and inter-religious fronts. On Friday, he will meet with German Jewish leaders at a momentous ceremony Friday at Cologne's synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis on the infamous Kristallnacht rampage in 1938. He also has meetings with German Muslim leaders and non-Catholic Christians, as well as top political leaders on the eve of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's bid for re-election.
The packed itinerary recalls John Paul's trips before his health began to fail. But the departed Pope was on the press corps' mind even before we took off from Rome's Ciampino airport this morning. Would the new Pontiff follow his predecessor's footsteps to the back of the plane to chat with the 50 or so reporters on board? Yes, was the answer, but briefly. After saying he was "moved" and counting on young people "as a force for peace," his spokesman cut off our questions even though Benedict appeared ready to take more. But there are certain decisions that only the Holy Father can make. And so two hours later, as he stepped briskly down the stairs toward the airport tarmac, the next question was about to be answered. No, Pope Benedict XVI did not kiss the ground.