Some 600 homeless people from Germany are about to meet Pope Francis. For many, it is the journey of a lifetime that they hope will bring personal and societal change. Jenny Witt reports from Hamburg.
Dieter Ahlers won't have much trouble packing for a trip to Rome, though the thought of boarding a plane causes him visible worry. The 64-year-old has only a few belongings after being homeless on and off for the last 30 years. He is one of the 103 people from Hamburg who will meet Pope Francis on Friday.
Some 6,000 people, including 600 from Germany, have been invited to the Vatican. For many, the trip will be their first flight and their first trip abroad. Ahlers said he wonders how the visit to Rome - a journey he said he never expected he would make - will affect him.
"I am not sure if change still happens at my age," he told DW. "I am looking forward to Rome, to seeing the city and to a whole new perspective."
Four months ago, Pope Francis invited thousands of Europe's homeless to a "festival of joy and mercy" at the Vatican. Project leader Jan Roser of the Catholic Academy in Hamburg began to contact organizations of all denominations.
Not an attempt to convert
Those attending the festival do not have to be Catholic or even Christian, Roser said.
"This is not missionary work," he told DW. "We simply want to say to people at the margins of society that we value them as human beings, that they are not forgotten and that they are entitled to respect, help and care."
Many of the Hamburg participants became involved through "Hinz & Kunzt," a magazine written and sold by homeless people. Stefan Karrenbauer, the magazine's political spokesman, said there was some initial debate about the project.
"People said 'What's the point of this trip, it won't change anything,'" he said. "But now this is really affecting people. When someone proudly shows me the rosary he has just received from a nurse in the hospital and he sits here and cries - well, to some people it really means a lot."
Once in Rome, the groups will have an audience with the pope and meet others who live on the streets of European towns and cities. On Sunday, a special Mass is scheduled in St. Peter's Basilica. The participants were asked to be "open to" the religious nature of the events.
Large Catholic organizations, such as the Order of Malta and Caritas, have thrown their weight behind the trip. Pia-Mareike Heyne of Caritas has looked after the practicalities in Hamburg, including booking plane tickets, sorting out meals and accommodation, organizing medical staff to travel with the group and soothing nerves frazzled by the impending trip.
"People are still canceling because they are worried," Heyne told DW. "One woman, for example, is concerned that she is messy, that she smells. Her travel companion, who will share a room with her, pointed out that everyone making the trip received a hand sewn toiletry bag and that they could shower after each other every morning."
Spotlight on poverty
Heyne said she hopes the trip - and the sight of thousands of homeless among the opulence of the Vatican - will lead to change not just in the participants but also in society as a whole.
"More than anything, I hope that the subject of poverty in Germany, that the number of people who live on the streets here, move back into public view," she said.