Thousands of volunteers are busy preparing Cologne for World Youth Day, which begins Aug. 16. It's also a chance for them to get to know different approaches to Catholicism around the globe.
A lot remains to be done before more than 800,000 people arrive
The motto of this World Youth Day is "We have come to worship Him." It's a quote from the Gospel according to Matthew and the name of the event's official song. Organizers expect 800,000 young people to converge on the Cologne region for World Youth Day. But it wouldn't be possible without the efforts of its volunteers.
At the volunteer department at World Youth Day headquarters in Cologne, Marko Schmitz and his coworkers attend to some 20,000 volunteers who have come to the city to be involved in this mega event.
Making sure that call center volunteers understand those seeking information
"We make sure that volunteers with certain qualifications get certain jobs, so that the call center gets people who speak the right languages, that we find people with a driver's license for a bus to drive the pilgrim groups around and so on," he said.
But it's not just about getting the right volunteers to the right place. The department also deals with issues like health insurance, spending money and accommodation.
Volunteers, not helpers
The young people between the ages of 16 and 30 who have come here from all over the world want to be called "volunteers" and not "helpers." For they are not only assisting during the ten-day event, they are also actively involved in its development.
Cologne at night
Marko Schmitz is also a volunteer although he's been working on organizing World Youth Day much longer. He's one of 137 so-called long-term volunteers from 42 nations who have been in Cologne since last August. They deal with registering the pilgrims, public relations or also the liturgy preparations for the pope's masses.
World youth day in toronto, 2002
"I'm in charge of the international liturgy group, which is composed of 150 young people from around the world," said Andrew Liung, who comes from China. "It will be on the main stage for the liturgies for the masses, the opening mass, the welcoming ceremony for the Holy Father, the vigil and the closing mass. So they will be the servers, the readers, the people to bring up the gifts."
Cultural and religious differences
Of course, cultural and religious differences become evident when a lot of people from all over the world come together. Christoph Wild, the head of the volunteer department, gave an example.
"The volunteers requested that we start our weekly meeting with a prayer," he said. "For us in Germany, it's somewhat unusual to start a working session by praying. But in New Zealand, if you work in church matters, it's normal and so we put this wish into practice."
With its staff of 230 young men and women, the World Youth Day headquarters could be any medium-sized company. But there is certainly not as much discussion and exchange in a regular business as there is in this international pool. Which songs will be sung at the services, which prayers read and how is religious belief conveyed at all?
German politicians are regular guests at church conventions
"For example, it was very interesting for people to see how openly we express our beliefs here, that it isn't a problem," Schmitz said. "My French colleague told me that in France, for example, you can't do that because there is a strict division of church and state. It's the same here, actually, but the two coexist and that has astonished our foreign volunteers."
Rubbing off on German churches?
Veronika Dickert works in the coordination and public relations department. She said she finds it exciting to see the various ways people from different countries express their faith. That eastern Europeans go to church more regularly. That the Chinese practice their Christianity more behind closed doors or that South Americans sing and dance in church. Dickert said she wishes that some of these traditions were practiced in services in her home congregation.
Will World Youth Day in Cologne be as cheerful as the one in Toronto in 2002?
"South Americans are a bit more spirited: they clap, sing and dance in mass," she said. "But I don't have a problem with that. I sometimes wish that were the case here, too. That more is done to tailor church services to young people's needs because that's the only way to interest them for the church. It's really something completely different than when a priest simply stands at his pulpit and just preaches anything."
Editor's note: Deutsche Welle is an official media partner of World Youth Day.