ROME, July 12 – Pope Benedict XVI left Rome on Saturday for Australia, where he will meet hundreds of thousands of young people celebrating the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day.,
In a telegram to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano just before leaving, Benedict said he was "filled with a great desire to meet the youth of the entire world to exhort them to become courageous witnesses of the love of Christ," according to a text released by the Vatican.
The trip will be Benedict’s longest since becoming pope three years ago, and the 81-year-old pontiff will rest for several days at a retreat near Sydney ahead of the six-day event celebrating the Catholic faith aimed at young people.
His first public appearance will be at the head of a Sydney Harbour flotilla next Thursday, and the trip will culminate in an open-air mass at Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse expected to attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims on July 20.
Ahead of the trip, Benedict’s ninth outside Italy, Vatican officials have noted Australia’s secular nature.
"Australia is a nation continent that has been strongly secularised, and where Catholics are a minority," the Vatican’s Youth Day pointman Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko said recently.
Benedict, the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, frequently criticises what he describes as the secularism of post-modern societies such as those of Australia, Europe and North America, saying they have lost a sense of "transcendency."
Sydney Archbishop George Pell told Vatican Radio that while there was "less hostility" to the Roman Catholic Church in Australia than in the United States, there was also "less enthusiasm".
"For us, indifference is the problem," he said.
As he did during his US trip, Benedict is expected to offer apologies to Australian victims of sexual abuse by priests.
Australian bishops issued an apology for past abuses in 2002 and Pell made it clear that papal comments on the issue would be "a welcome contribution."
"I think it would be appropriate for the pope to say something on that score," he said.
The situation of Australia’s still struggling Aborigines — championed by Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II during his 1986 visit — will also be part of this visit.
The pope is expected to address the issue during the welcome ceremony next Thursday, when Aboriginal dancers and singers will take centre stage.