Thousands of pilgrims converged on Sydney as it braced Friday for the weekend arrival of the pope and the start of World Youth Day, the biggest event held in Australia since the 2000 Olympics.
After five years of planning, the massive Roman Catholic festival will finally kick off Tuesday and run through Sunday, attracting more than 200,000 pilgrims to Sydney.
Nuns decked out in habits and brightly-colored World Youth Day backpacks strolled through the city, as event organizers worked frantically to keep up with the ever-expanding flocks of faithful and Sydney residents steeled themselves for traffic nightmares.
Pope Benedict XVI will arrive Sunday and rest for a few days before leading a series of prayer gatherings and meetings on Thursday. He will then take a boat trip on Sydney Harbor, followed by a welcome 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. Other events include a re-enactment of the 12 stations of the cross in various parts of the city and a "sleep out under the stars," during which pilgrims will spend the final night of festivities sleeping outdoors at a racetrack. The following morning, the event will conclude with a papal mass, expected to draw hundreds of thousands.
An electronic clock outside St. Mary's Cathedral in downtown Sydney ticked down the days remaining before the festival's start, while a giant welcome tent across the street swarmed with pilgrims taking a break from the chilly day to mull over stacks of World Youth Day sweatshirts, hats and scarves for sale.
Odile DeGrandmaison, who traveled to Australia from Normandy, France, for the festival, wandered through the tent with her 15-year-old daugher Astrid, checking out the obligatory Australian souvenirs: tiny stuffed koalas, boomerangs, Ugg boots. Pausing to contemplate the pope's looming arrival, she began to weep.
"It's important to hear the good word," she said as an equally tearful Astrid gave her a comforting hug. "It's good to feel that we're all together."
Heather Wilkinson spent Friday morning sitting on the docks of Darling Harbor with members of her church youth group from Canada, drinking in the view of the deep blue water shimmering in the sunlight. Like many pilgrims, she hoped to spend some of her time in Australia checking out the sights and bonding with other international visitors.
The 20-year-old attended the World Youth Day event in Germany in 2005, and found it deeply moving. She hoped to recapture some of that emotion with the pope's arrival in Sydney. "It's one of the best experiences I've ever had in my life," she said.
Despite the pilgrims' excitement, the festival has attracted a fair amount of controversy. The NoToPope Coalition, made up of gay rights, student and atheist groups, is planning a July 19 march to protest what it calls the pope's homophobic and antiquated ideas. The Church bans the use of condoms and other forms of artificial birth control and the coalition planned to distribute condoms to young pilgrims in response.
A new law that gives authorities the power to order anyone to stop behavior considered "annoying" toward the pilgrims was panned by critics as a form of censorship and drew a protest by the coalition on Wednesday. Anyone who doesn't comply with the regulations could face a fine of $5,300. Police and the New South Wales state government say they are a necessary security measure, but libertarians and rights activists disagree.
Earlier this week, Australia's top Roman Catholic cleric, Cardinal George Pell, said he expected the pope to express regret for sexual abuse by church officials, as he did earlier this year in the United States.
But in an ill-timed twist, Pell agreed on Thursday to reopen the investigation into a 25-year-old sexual abuse case, after nearly a week of media reports that questioned his earlier handling of the alleged victim's complaint.