Critics have been present at World Youth Day, bringing up issues such as the role of women, family planning and gay rights. There are signs that the gap between them and church leaders is narrowing.
Not everyone at WYD is cheering for the pope
As World Youth Day (WYD) enters its climactic phase with the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, church critics are also stepping up their activities. A number of reform organizations from around the world have been handing out flyers and staging events in the city of Cologne in an attempt to reach the young people attending the Catholic festival.
United under the umbrella of the "World Youth Day 4 All Coalition" (WYD4All), they have set up their base for the duration of the gathering in a church in the city center.
While there is hardly any room given to controversial issues in the official WYD program, young believers' response to critical questions has been enormous, says Aisha Taylor, program director of the US-based Women's Ordination Conference.
"The possibility for priests to get married, the rights of gays and lesbians, more democratic participation for lay people -- all these are points on which we would like to see progress," she said.
Women priests unsettle leaders
A particular focus of Taylor's work concerns the role of women in the church. According to official doctrine women cannot be become priests.
"When seven women were ordained priests in 2002 by a dissident bishop in Austria, the Vatican excommunicated the women within a week or so," Taylor, 24, said.
Gisela Forster, left, and Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger are two of the seven women who were ordained as priests by Argentine bishop Romulo Braschi in 2002 in defiance of the ban of Catholic Church on female clergy.
At the time, it was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI, who lead the charge against them.
Yet, judging from responses from the people thronging the streets of Cologne, equal rights for women in the church consistently rank among the top demands, reports Taylor, who sees the demonstrative ordination of women also as a way to elicit a direct response from the Vatican.
"The pope is getting annoyed and knows who we are," she said. "But we have to use these alternative paths to make our opinions known, because the church is not a democracy and its members have no vote."
Even if Benedict XVI refuses to recognize women priests, in the future another pope could make a cut with the past, she says. And the ongoing effort by reformers is having an impact, she adds: "We now have female altar service and women who work as Eucharistic ministers. And in a letter the pope, then a cardinal, made a point of the equality of men and women in public life -- except in the church context."
Latin American concerns
In other regions of the world, such as Latin America, where a large majority of the population is Catholic, there is not necessarily a less critical view than in Europe or North America.
"The church has a lot of spiritual and political power in our part of the world," said 25-year-old Andrea Ramirez from Bolivia who heads the youth chapter of the "We Are Church" reform movement in her home country. "But there is also strong support for the gay movement or the feminists."
"We want to show that you can be a good Catholic and be gay or lesbian. Or that you can be a good Catholic and use condoms," she said.
The church still has enormous influence in Latin America
The ongoing refusal by the Vatican to soften its stance on family planning or the use of condoms is particularly detrimental to poor countries, says Ramirez.
"But maybe the pope hasn't had enough time, yet, to properly get in touch with the very real problems of the nations of the south."
The refusal by conservative church leaders to engage in debate sometimes takes forms that amount to keeping information away from young believers, critics say.
“We have seen how nuns accompanying a group of young Catholics took away from them the flyers we had just handed out to them,” reports Agnes Rudnik, a spokeswoman for the gay and lesbian groups at WYD.
Cheer the pope, follow your conscience - no problem
So is it a contradiction that young people attending WYD are welcoming the pope with overwhelming enthusiasm, yet feel strongly about a number contentious issues on which they are opposed to the pontiff, as reformers claim?
"I don’t think there is a contradiction when people cheer the pope and follow their conscience at the same time,” says Tobias Raschke, the German spokesman for "We Are Church.” "Young people feel it is their church and sincerely want the pope to understand what their concerns are.”
The critics make a strong point that they are part of the church and do consider themselves firmly rooted in the faith.
"I really hope our work gives a new impetus for change to the pope, because he’s my religious leader after all,” says Ramirez.
“I love my faith and the Catholic Church, it’s my heritage, my tradition", says Aisha Taylor.
Signs of change
While WYD is an event that appeals to the masses, many young reformers agree that behind it there is a genuine attempt to reach out to the younger generation. The efforts and successes of the church in tackling social problems, injustice and poverty around the world is something that draws particularly strong support from young people.
One of the few events WYD organizers put on to engage young people in an open debate focused on precisely these themes called "YouthHearing."
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Archbishop of Tegucicalpa (Honduras)
Held at a community center in Cologne on Wednesday afternoon, there was rapturous applause from the floor when critics brought up the ban on condom use, which in their view undermines the fight against HIV/AIDS in poor countries.
In their response, German Bishop Reinhard Marx and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez from Honduras stopped just short of actively endorsing condoms, but acknowledged that they can play an important role.
A revolution? Not quite. But participants left with a feeling that change is in the air.