|Pope Benedict XVI saluted before boarding a plane for his trip to Australia. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)|
SYDNEY - Thousands of pilgrims converged on Sydney as it prepared for today's arrival of Pope Benedict XVI and this week's World Youth Day events, the biggest public gathering held in Australia since the 2000 Olympics.
After five years of planning, the massive Roman Catholic festival will kick off Tuesday and run through next Sunday, attracting more than 200,000 pilgrims to Sydney.
The pope left Leonardo da Vinci Airport outside Rome yesterday morning. The trip is the longest of Benedict's three-year-old papacy.
After a 20-hour flight, the 81-year-old pontiff will rest for a few days at the Roman Catholic study center in Kenthurst. On Thursday, he will lead a series of prayer gatherings and meetings. He will then take a boat trip on Sydney Harbor, followed by a welcoming ceremony and papal motorcade through downtown.
Tens of thousands are expected to participate in a walking pilgrimage across Sydney's famed Harbor Bridge, which links the north and south portions of the city and offers a sweeping view of the harbor and opera house.
Benedict will be greeted at the harbor by a group of Aborigines and other young people from the Pacific Basin. In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology to the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific islands for injustices perpetrated by Catholic missionaries.
Other festival events include a reenactment of the stations of the cross and a "sleep out under the stars." The next morning, the event will conclude with a papal Mass, expected to draw hundreds of thousands.
Aboard the papal plane yesterday, Benedict told reporters that he hopes to raise awareness about climate change during his trip. The pope also said he would work for "healing and reconciliation with the victims" of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy there, as he did in the United States earlier this year.
There is a need to "wake up consciences" about the environment, Benedict said. "We have to give impulse to rediscovering our responsibility and to finding an ethical way to change our way of life." He stressed that the Vatican would not weigh in on technical or political questions swirling around climate change.
Benedict also acknowledged that the Catholic Church in the West was "in crisis" but insisted it was not in decline. "I am an optimist" about its future, he said.
In Sydney, an electronic clock outside St. Mary's Cathedral ticked down the days remaining before the youth festival's start.
Odile DeGrandmaison, who traveled to Australia from Normandy, France, for the festival, wandered through a tent with her 15-year-old daughter Astrid, checking out the Australian souvenirs: tiny stuffed koalas, boomerangs, Ugg boots.
"It's important to hear the good word," she said. "It's good to feel that we're all together."