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Pope returns to native Germany, new pride

COLOGNE, Germany -- Pope Benedict XVI, the first German pontiff in centuries, yesterday triumphantly returned to his homeland, cruising up the Rhine through a city and a vast crowd packed with reminders of Germany's troubled past and its hopeful future.

Thousands of young Germans donned buttons declaring ''Wir Sind Papst," literally ''We are pope," reflecting the burst of national pride that the election of a German cardinal as pope, and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of young people here for World Youth Day, has occasioned in a nation still at times uncomfortable with expressions of nationalism.

Benedict immediately went to visit the Cologne cathedral, a soaring Gothic structure that was severely damaged by Allied bombing during World War II; today he is to visit the Jewish synagogue in Cologne, which was destroyed by Nazis on Kristallnacht in 1938. At the synagogue, Benedict, who like many German men of his generation served briefly in the Hitler Youth, will greet Holocaust survivors in front of a memorial to the Jews killed by Nazi Germany.

''Following the pope from Poland, the first country to be invaded by Germany during the Second World War, a member of the so-called flak helper generation has now been chosen as St. Peter's successor," German President Horst Köhler said at a welcoming ceremony at the Cologne airport. ''This is for me a source of confidence, 60 years after the end of the inhuman and ungodly ideology which prevailed in Germany."

Cologne was chosen for World Youth Day by Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, so it is a coincidence that Benedict's first trip is to his home country. But Köhler said many are viewing the election of Benedict -- highlighted by World Youth Day because the event is the pope's first international trip -- as ''a sign of reconciliation."

''Even as a Protestant, I can say that we are very much moved by the fact that a German, one of us, has become pope," said Köhler, who greeted Benedict with the words ''welcome home."

As a cardinal, with the name Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict was highly controversial in his native Germany, where much of the church is more liberal than the new pope. But the nation has embraced him as a symbol, even if many do not agree with every element of his theology -- the tone of the press coverage here has been jubilant, even as German Catholics, like others in Europe, are increasingly unlikely to attend church.

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, who is in Cologne with a group of several hundred pilgrims from the Boston area, said Benedict's pontificate ''is an opportunity for Germany to reconnect with the rest of the world in light of their history."

''Germany . . . has been under this terrible cloud -- the Second World War, the Holocaust, those terrible things -- [and] is now once more being reconnected in a spiritual way with the rest of the world," O'Malley said.

Benedict, who is from Bavaria but spent time here in the Rhineland as a theology professor at the University of Bonn, shared briefly in the patriotism at the airport arrival ceremony.

''With deep joy I find myself for the first time after my election to the Chair of Peter in my beloved homeland, in Germany," he said, speaking bareheaded after a gust of wind blew his white skullcap back into his Alitalia jet. ''With deep emotion I thank God who has enabled me to begin my pastoral visits outside Italy with this visit to the nation of my birth."

Benedict conspicuously did not kiss the ground upon his landing, and when he spoke from the cruise ship he addressed pilgrims in English and French as well as German.

Although some had questioned his interest in relating to the young, he proved an energetic visitor, shaking hands, bestowing blessings, even kissing a small child as he walked or rode in a popemobile through packed crowds. He was mobbed everywhere he went -- thousands lined the banks of the Rhine for his lengthy cruise, and some even waded into the water to get closer to him; a huge ebullient crowd packed the plazas around the cathedral to catch a glimpse of Benedict as he visited to venerate what the church says are relics of the three magi who had paid homage to the baby Jesus.

''It's a very good signal that the new pope is from Germany," said Kristijan Vlasic, 17, of Dusseldorf. ''This new pope shows that although he's a German cardinal and a former member of the Hitler Youth, he can express the feelings of young people all over the world, a belief in God, and a new attitude toward church."

Vlasic's friend, 19-year-old Ulrich Wensel of Dusseldorf, was draped in a black, red, and yellow German flag as the two walked through the streets near the cathedral, surrounded by young people from around the world.

''We are very proud that this pope is from Germany, and we all support him," Wensel said. ''The whole world is in Germany, and now they can see that we aren't intolerant; they can see that Germans are friendly."

Officials made similar points.

''I hope that these young people from abroad will have a chance to meet many young Germans who share the same faith, and I hope they will recognize that Germany of nowadays has a faith and a people whom you may respect and even have friendship with," said Wolfgang K. Vorwerk, the consul general of Germany in Boston, in a telephone interview. ''This event will be a good chance to meet with young Germans, to exchange views, and to see that we are a hospitable country."

Many young people expressed affection for the idea of a German pope. Greg Mark, 21, of Indianapolis, was walking down the street wearing a T-shirt reading on the front ''I love my German shepherds," and decorated on the back with pictures of Benedict and the German-American archbishop of Indianapolis, Daniel M. Buechlein.

The pope's doctrinaire views still make him controversial in Germany -- a reform group, We are Church, is maintaining an active presence here to criticize the church's opposition to condom use and other policies. Germany itself has an even share of Catholics and Protestants, and, like much of Europe, is increasingly secular.

''Germany is one of these Western European countries where the practice of Christianity is low and lowering, and of course Benedict came with a very mixed reputation, loved by some and disliked by others," said the Rev. David J. Collins, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University.

But for many, Benedict's theological views are beside the point.

''Germany is among the least religious countries in Europe today, but his election is a great source of national pride -- the fact that he was elected to this post is more significant than the fact that he is Catholic," said Daniel Levy, an assistant professor of sociology at Stony Brook University. ''The truth is that the man has been living in Rome for 25 years, so he's much more of a cosmopolitan clergyman than he is a German, but he's going to be appropriated as a German, and one who stands for a universal set of values."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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