Flying Into Winter, "Spring in His Step"
Before being whisked to a few days of rest and shaking off the jet-lag at an Opus Dei retreat center outside the city (where Papa Ratzi's been provided with a cat companion for the duration of his stay), on his touchdown at a nearby airbase the Pope was greeted by his twin hosts for the weeklong trek: the Oz Premier Kevin Rudd and the nation's ever-controversial senior cleric, Sydney's Cardinal George Pell, whose history with allegations of clergy sex abuse caused a new firestorm in the days before the papal arrival, culminating in the cardinal's appointment of an independent inquiry to study his handling of a 2003 case late last week.
With the Pope planning to make another US-style apology to Australian victim-survivors -- and possibly hold a second meeting with a group -- sex abuse was a topic aboard the Volo Papale for the second papal trip running:
"Being a priest," the pope said, "is incompatible with sexual abuse, with this behavior that contradicts holiness." Benedict said that he decided to address the sexual abuse issue in the United States "because of the centrality of the theme" in that country, "and it will be the same in Australia."
Benedict also told reporters that he would work for “healing and reconciliation with the victims” of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy there “just as I did in the United States” earlier this year.
The Vatican has not announced whether the pope will meet with victims of sexual abuse while in Australia. In Washington, Benedict met with five victims in a private encounter in the residence of the Apostolic Nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States.
Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, the chief organizer of World Youth day, told reporters that if a meeting were to take place, "I expect it would be like in the United States, very private."
“It is essential for the Church to reconcile, to prevent, to help and to see guilt in this problem,” the pope told reporters.Culminating a long Vatican push on the issue, another topic of note came straight from the pontiff's mouth in the tightly-controlled in-flight gathering: Benedict's first direct comments on the care of the environment, yet with a pointed reminder that he wouldn't get political about it.
"We have to reflect on what was insufficient and our education and our teaching (of priests). This is the essential content of what we will say (as we) apologize," he said.
Ten kilometres above the earth, the Pope delivered a message to the people of Sydney: the world is God's creation and humanity needs to safeguard it against the ravages of climate change.
His message, unexpected and delivered in Italian, called for a spiritual response to the environmental crisis and asked Catholics to find "a way of living, a style of life that eases the problems caused to the environment".
"We need to rediscover our earth in the face of our God and creator and to re-find our responsibilities in front of our Maker and the creatures of the earth He has placed in our hands in trust," he said.
"We need to reawaken our conscience. I want to give impulse to rediscovering our responsibilities and to finding an ethical way to change our way of life and ways to respond to these great challenges."
While the majority of the 215,000 pilgrims from across the globe -- including a Stateside delegation of 15,000 -- have already arrived, the festivities don't officially begin until tomorrow evening's opening liturgy, with Pell as main celebrant. To follow the action as it happens, the organizers have set up a video page of their own, and blogs and coverage abound, from Australia's state broadcaster ABC, Catholic News Service and the National Catholic Reporter and Register both, to pilgrims from the archdioceses of San Antonio and Indianapolis, all topped by a "virtual pilgrimage" with a flock of youth-reporters posting to MyCatholicVoice.com.
At Sunday's climactic closing liturgy at Randwick Racecourse, as has been anticipated for some months now, the Pope is widely tipped to announce that the next WYD will go to Madrid. Breaking the usual triennial calendar for the celebrations, however, the 12th international gathering might just be moved up a year, taking place in 2010 to coincide with the next Holy Year at Santiago de Compostela and the 800th anniversary of the construction of the famed pilgrimage mecca's basilica. And what's more, even further beyond Sydney Harbour, the stars have begun to align toward a US bid for the following WYD, slated for 2014, with all sights already pointing to Houston as the proposed host-city.
More as it all progresses, 14 hours ahead of Eastern time.
PHOTOS: AFP/Getty(1,2); AP/Rob Griffith(3)