After years of planning, countless hours of travel and more than 11 hours waiting crushed in a crowd, thousands of young pilgrims got their reward - seeing the Pope.
“I’m shaking! It was so emotional,” said Susie Jankowiak, 19, making her way back from the barrier that separated her from Pope Benedict XVI yesterday as he greeted and then blessed the throngs of pilgrims outside of Cologne Cathedral for World Youth Day.
“I was close to tears because it wasn’t JP II, but it’s the first World Youth Day for Benedict and I think you can tell that he was excited to be here,” she said.
Indeed, Pope John Paul II, who started the World Youth Day gathering and planned for this year’s event to be held in Germany, was on the minds of most pilgrims.
For many, such as 20-year-old Johanna Anuszko, he was like a grandfather, the only pontiff they had ever known.
“He is here with us in spirit,” said Anuszko, from Warsaw, Poland. “So we have two popes today, Benedict and John Paul II. It is a great feeling.”
Many seasoned pilgrims, such as Jankowiak who saw John Paul in Toronto during the 2002 World Youth Day, recalled fondly how he would play the crowd, chanting back at them and joining in their songs.
But for the pilgrims, Benedict’s presence, reflecting his desire to be a part of the World Youth Festivities made up for any sadness.
“It’s not about the Pope, it’s what he represents to us,” said Marta Spiezo, a youth group leader.
That feeling was shared by many of the tens of thousands of other young people who descended on the Roncalli Square outside the cathedral.
Many began staking out their places the night before. Spiezo sent three chaperones out the night before to figure out where the pope would be.
After wandering around for hours they saw security tents going up and staked out a position just outside. At 7am (5am Irish time) Spiezo and the 33 young people from the group joined them.
More than 11 hours later – after being security-checked and searched, waiting in the sun and holding their ground against a group of Chileans trying to shove to the front, a cheer went up from the crowd and the pope arrived.
Arms reached up with digital cameras, people hoisted each other on their backs and bobbed heads to let those behind them see the pontiff. In an instant, the long wait was forgotten.
“I waited eight hours for a concert once,” said Mike Principe, 18. “This was definitely worth it.”