An estimated 400,000 young Catholics are expected to celebrate the opening of World Youth Day on Tuesday while eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI two days later.
They've come to pray and play
Three masses in Cologne and the nearby German cities of Bonn and Düsseldorf on Tuesday will bring the curtain up on the biennial gathering of Catholic youth from around the globe.
Some two million pilgrims gathered at Tor Vergata on the outskirts of Rome in August 2000 for World Youth Day
Around 100,000 are coming from Italy alone, while around 50,000 youths from Spain and 20,000 from Poland have made the trip.
Cologne and its surrounding cities have transformed themselves into centers of prayer, music, and goodwill. Nearly a million people from around 200 nations are expected to attend events by the end of the week.
Cologne's main train station is a magnet for them. The city on the Rhine River is already swarming with fresh-faced young people carrying bright blue backpacks with the World Youth Day emblem.
A mega event
The train station sits right next to Cologne's cathedral
The festival kicked off last night with welcoming festivities. Pilgrims begin each day this week with morning prayers at churches throughout the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany's largest diocese. Tens of thousands of pilgrims are expected at different official opening masses in the afternoon.
Cologne is doing all it can to accommodate the masses. City officials have set up white tanks at intervals throughout town, where visitors can fill up their water bottles from taps connected to Cologne's main water supply.
Organizers also have their hands full dolling out millions of pieces of fruit and bread rolls to pilgrims. Over 10,000 portable toilets are installed throughout World Youth Day locations. Many pilgrims have to camp out on the floors of churches, schools, or gyms to sleep.
Pope draws crowds
He's already there, at least in poster form
The pilgrims are here for religious contemplation at over 1,000 events during the week -- at everything from jam sessions, talks about the Catholic church, sex and AIDS prevention, to morning prayers, poetry readings, discussions about how to spread love and justice through the world, and sports events.
Many pilgrims came to meet other young people, but also to see the new leader of their church.
"I'm here to see Pope Benedict XVI and it's awesome," said one young man.
Almost a million people are expected to attend the Sunday mass with Pope Benedict XVI. On Friday, Benedict XVI will also be the first pope to attend a German synagogue.
Pilgrims carrying the World Youth Day cross
A test for the pontifex maximus
The public appearances of the 78-year-old naturally shy pope will be closely watched for signs of how he compares with John Paul II, who even in his later years wracked by illness could excite huge crowds.
Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the leader of the German bishops' conference who has known the pope for decades, said Benedict would have a different style to his immediate predecessor, but that the pilgrims would not be disappointed.
"He has shown in recent weeks that he is carrying out these duties with a surprising lightness of touch and aplomb," Lehmann said on Tuesday.
Would he recognize himself? The image of the pope drawn on the ground in front of the Cologne cathedral
The first test of the pope's ability to charm the crowds comes within minutes of his arrival in Germany on Thursday with a welcome ceremony at the Poller Rheinwiesen park following a 15-minute trip down the Rhine on a river boat.
Security will be tight, with fears heightened by this summer's terrorist attacks in London, and 4,000 police will be deployed in Cologne and the surrounding area.
In addition, some 4,000 private security guards will be on duty for the duration of the pope's four-day sojourn. NATO will supply AWACS radar planes to patrol the skies and other aircraft must apply for special permission to fly over the area.
Disclaimer: Deutsche Welle is a media partner of World Youth Day 2005.