The first German pope in 500 years received a colorful welcome in Cologne today at the beginning of his attendance of the World Youth Day.
They speak the same language: Benedict XVI and president Köhler
Pope Benedict XVI arrived at a blustery Cologne-Bonn airport in his native Germany Thursday, sparking a rapturous ovation from a welcoming party of young pilgrims at the start of the first foreign visit of his pontificate.
The 78-year-old pontiff suffered a brief mishap when his skullcap was blown off by a gust of wind as he stepped from the Alitalia plane.
Smiling, he waved to the cheering crowd after being greeted by German President Horst Köhler and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and their wives, and Cologne Archbishop Cardinal Joachim Meisner.
A windy homecoming for pope Benedict XVI
He chose not to kiss the airport tarmac, the gesture which became the hallmark of his charismatic predecessor John Paul II on his 104 foreign visits.
"Welcome to Germany, welcome home," president Köhler said.
Awaiting the 78-year-old pope are an estimated 400,000 young pilgrims gathered in the western German city of Cologne.
"That so many people have come to meet the successor of Peter is a sign of the Church's vitality. I am happy to be with them, confirm their faith and enliven their hope," Benedict XVI said upon arrival.
Crowds gathering on the Rhine
Teeming masses of flag-waving young Catholics lined the banks of the Rhine waiting to catch their first glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI as he sailed up the river to join a global youth festival.
"I will never forget this day, it was an awesome experience. He seemed so full of joy as he waved to us," said Colleen Ackerman, 25, from Cape Town.
For Colleen and most of the crowd, it was their first view of a pope in the flesh and the man greeting them from the upper deck of the river cruiser did not disappoint.
"We feel blessed that we were able to be here to see this," said her friend Teresa Lawrence, 26, also from Cape Town.
Tens of thousands more were arriving in the city by train on Thursday ahead of Benedict's first speech to the youth gathering at 5 pm. Organizers expect the crowd will swell to around a million by the time he celebrates an open-air mass in a park outside the city on Sunday.
The pope spent the early afternoon meeting with Cologne Archbishop Cardinal Joachim Meisner at the archbishop's residence, which will also serve as his lodgings during the World Youth Day.
In the early evening, Benedict XVI is also expected to visit the Cologne cathedral.
The pontiff's visit is accompanied by high security. A NATO reconnaissance plane is protecting the air space over Cologne during the Catholic festival.
Around 4,000 police officers and thousands of private security personnel, 1,900 firefighters and 2,000 emergency medical workers are on duty. 25,000 volunteers are helping with the day-to-day functioning of the mega event.
In possibly the most significant part of his trip, Benedict will become only the second Roman Catholic leader in modern times to visit a Jewish place of worship when he goes to a Cologne synagogue on Friday, almost two decades after John Paul II made a historic visit to Rome's main synagogue.
Benedict is also due to hold talks with Muslim leaders. The Armenian-Orthodox patriarch of Istanbul and Turkey, Mesrob II Mutafayan, and vice-chariman of the German Bishops Conference, Heinrich Mussinhof, said on Thursday that the interfaith dialogue during the World Youth Day was a "sign of hope for the church and the world."
The pope will preside at a Saturday night vigil at the Marienfeld park outside Cologne with a crowd expected to be in the hundreds of thousands, followed by a huge open-air mass at the same venue on Sunday.
Prayer and chaos
Pilgrims from all over the world have gathered in Cologne
Thousands attended a program of events on Wednesday in warm sunshine which is expected to last until the end of the pope's four-day visit on Sunday.
The flow of festival participants partly blocked the traffic around the Cologne train station in the night between Wednesday and Thursday.
"From 10 pm on, we had to occasionally close all access to the train station," said a spokesperson for the Cologne police. "The crowds inside were unbelievable."
The traffic jam was caused by numerous pilgrims trying to return from festival events to their lodgings. Standing in long lines caused exhaustion and circulation problems for some pilgrims. The situation normalized again around 2 am.
A group of young French pilgrims who had made the trip to Cologne said they were looking forward to seeing the new pope in the flesh.
"The media have given us this image of a highly conservative man, but I am waiting to see what he says," said Thomas, 21, from Metz.
His mind was already in Cologne, as was his image
Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged Wednesday that he was absent-minded after forgetting to bless the hundreds of pilgrims who attended his weekly audience at his Castel Gandolfo summer residence. The crowd gathered in the palace courtyard was surprised to see the Pope return to his window several moments after leaving after greeting pilgrims in several languages.
"I ask for your forgiveness, but I have forgotten the most important greeting, the greeting to the pilgrims in the Italian language," he told them.
He went back inside the palace, only to return again shortly.
"Today, I have forgotten the most important things. One can see that I am already in Cologne. I omitted the most important thing: the benediction," he said while smiling before giving his blessing.