The Catholic World Youth Day, set to hit Cologne this week with a mammoth influx of devout adolescents, is a chance for German Catholics to show their faith to the world. But just how religious are German youth today?
Are mass gatherings a reflection of deeper religious faith?
Pope John Paul II consecrated the first World Youth Day in 1985, hoping to spur an upsurge in evangelical energy among Catholic youth around the world. At the 20th anniversary event, held this week in Cologne, nearly one million young faithful from all over the world are expected to converge on the Rhenish metropolis and its famous cathedral. But some are calling into question whether the institution represented by Pope Benedict XVI, the first German Pope in nearly 500 years, is in touch with the German youth of today.
Statistically speaking, the answer would seem to be negative. A study of youth by Shell in 2000 found that religious knowledge is a rarity among today's youth. A majority of German adolescents have only vague ideas about the fundamentals of Christianity. While 65 percent of German citizens officially belong to a church, only four to six percent of young Germans attend Sunday services, and then only occasionally.
Near to the people?
"I believe the institution of the church lives in an ivory tower," said Katrin, a young woman from Cologne. "They go about their business without really concerning themselves with the people. They are far removed from the actual people."
The reasons the institutional church does not resonate with many young people are varied. Some blame the church for not reaching out enough or in the right ways to the youth. Others say young people are simply more distracted today, having an unparalleled range of activities, interests, and ideologies -- from environmental activism to video games -- to choose from. Katrin thinks one reason is that the church's stances are often not in line with the values of today's youth, especially when it comes to sexual issues.
"Why shouldn't we use condoms when they protect us from diseases? Why shouldn't we have protected sex, when we don't want to get pregnant?" she said.
On homosexuality, Katrin's views also clash with official church doctrine.
"Homosexuality exists, has always existed. You can interpret that to mean that God created it Himself. Homosexuality will always exist; it is not something that can be banned," she said.
When the church takes an official stance against contraception, as it has in Cologne, for example, this serves to alienate many young people. Many would seem to echo Katrin in saying yes to religion in general but no to certain aspects of church doctrine.
Lack of expertise
Whereas many youths recoil from the church's sexual conservatism, there is also a group of Christian teenagers that find the church's stance on a variety of issues too ambivalent. They may share the core Christian values of social engagement and a strong family life, but turn to other organizations when it comes to environmental or human rights issues. Here, for many youths, the church lacks expertise. They tend to direct their activism to organizations that are strongly oriented towards specific issues and attempt to influence the here and now.
Gemälde von Martin Luther
German youth of today are not necessarily becoming less religious; they are simply less interested in experiencing God through the mediation of the church. And this should come as no surprise. After all, it was the great German theologian Martin Luther who, at the start of the sixteenth century, initiated a rebellion from official church doctrine which was focused on the individual's capacity to reach salvation through prayer, apart from the corrupt apparatus in Rome.
Luther thus ushered in the Modern Age, the focus on the individual, and the loss in power for the Catholic Church, at least in Northern Europe. Germany's youth of today, who don't feel all that connected to the conservative doctrines of the church, and wish to focus on a personal, individual relationship to a higher power, are following in the footsteps of that German spirit of reform.
Editor's note: Deutsche Welle is an official media partner of World Youth Day.