Pope's Hometown Attracts Young Pilgrims

About 400,000 young pilgrims from around the globe are arriving in Cologne for World Youth Day. But the tiny town of Marktl — where Pope Benedict was born — has also become a pilgrimage destination.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Pope Benedict grew up as Joseph Ratzinger in a tiny German town. Now that town is the destination of pilgrimages. Curt Nickisch sent us a postcard from the town of Marktl.

CURT NICKISCH reporting:

It's 9:00 in the morning and four men in their late 20s get out of a train at Marktl with a wooden wagon. Inside is a five-gallon keg of Bavarian beer.

Unidentified Man #1: In the first moment, this was a joke to do this. Now we said why not?

NICKISCH: It all started when their fellow Bavarian assumed the papacy. Soon after, two of these men were blessed with healthy babies. Thus, their self-styled pilgrimage was born.

Unidentified Man #1: Because we want to thank that we got healthy kids and that we are all friends of health, too, and we thank God for this.

NICKISCH: So off they go, pulling the wagon over cobblestone streets, the beer mugs inside rattling all the way to the house where Ratzinger was born. They tap the keg and toast their growing families.

(Soundbite of men toasting in foreign language)

NICKISCH: From here, they're going 12 miles out of town along the Inn River toward a small village where the pope used to go to church. They empty the keg along the way, making it easier to get the wagon over fallen trees and puddles. Some bicyclists stop to help at a really muddy spot. One of the riders used to be an altar boy for then Bishop and later Cardinal Ratzinger. He convinced his friends to take their annual bike trip together here along, as he calls it, the stations of the pope.

Unidentified Man #2: It's Bavarian men and it's a great feeling to have support from them. And I think it's good for the world. It's a good man for the church.

NICKISCH: The cyclists continue on their way into Marktl, where a Catholic youth group from California has just poured out of a tour bus onto the town square.

Unidentified Woman: It is the house where Pope Benedict XVI was born on April 16, 1927, right where we're standing now. And then there's a whole time line if you guys want to look at the time line later.

NICKISCH: The kids are more interested, though, in the souvenir shop across the street. That's where they discover the bottled beer with Benedictine labels.

Unidentified Woman: It's the pope's beer.

Unidentified Teen #1: It's pope beer.

Unidentified Woman: Pope beer.

Unidentified Teen #2: Awesome.

Unidentified Teen #3: Can we get some?

Unidentified Teen #4: Oh, my goodness.

NICKISCH: Bottles and bills change hands. A group of nuns from Austria looks on, heads shaking.

Unidentified Man: Thank you. Thank you.

NICKISCH: For J.P. Panlasigi(ph), though, this purchase is still part of the pilgrimage, finding the meaning behind the mystique.

Mr. J.P. PANLASIGI: It would be almost like seeing the place where George Washington was born or Abraham Lincoln, where he was born. That's really iconic and we kind of gave into it, too, 'cause we just bought a lot of beer. But I guess there is some solace in knowing that underneath it all the reason why it's so marketable is just because what's in people's hearts about what's behind the images, you know, very clean and pure.

NICKISCH: Next stop for this group is Munich where Ratzinger was bishop and then to Cologne to see Pope Benedict celebrate mass on Sunday. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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