By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
While being pope is obviously an enormous burden, the job does have its perks – one of them being that any flight he takes is virtually always on time.
That proved to be the case once again today, as Benedict XVI’s Alitalia jet landed punctually at a Royal Australian Air Force base outside Sydney at 3:04 pm local time, within five minutes of his scheduled arrival. Counting a brief refueling stop in Darwin in northern Australia, the pope and his entourage travelled for roughly 20 hours to reach Sydney from Rome, covering more than 10,000 miles, making this by far the longest foreign journey of his papacy.
When Benedict landed in Darwin earlier in the day, Australia became just the third country to be visited by three modern popes: Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. The other two are Turkey and the United States.
Benedict has described Australia as the “great southern land of the Holy Spirit.” The country is home 5.6 million Catholics, roughly 27 percent of the total national population.
Benedict was briefly welcomed by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, of the ruling center-left Labor Party, as well as Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, the official host of both the pope and World Youth Day, as well as Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, president of the Australian bishops' conference.
A crowd in excess of 1,000 people was also on hand to greet the pontiff. According to a blogger for an Australian news agency, many carried hand-painted signs for the pope. Because the papal plane taxied to a spot far from where they had gathered, however, most never caught a glimpse of Benedict and eventually headed home.
After the brief ceremony, Benedict was whisked away to the Kenthurst Study Centre, a retreat facility run by the Catholic group Opus Dei located in what a World Youth Day spokesperson described as a "tranquil Australian bushland setting". Benedict will spend four days of rest before beginning his official World Youth Day program on July 17. On Thursday, he will travel across Sydney Harbour by boat to arrive in the city's center.
According to a press release from the Australian organizers of World Youth Day, Benedict XVI was accompanied on the papal plane to Sydney by 43 journalists, well below the normal complement of 60 or 70. That may be related to the cost of the trip; with airfare and the hotel bill combined, reporters who took the papal plane to Australia can expect to pay roughly $15,000.
So far, attendance at the Australian edition of World Youth day appears strong. Organizers say that a total of 215,000 pilgrims are now registered for the week-long event, which includes a contingent of some 100,000 international participants. By week's end, turnout could swell to over a half-million for the Saturday vigil service with Benedict XVI and the concluding Mass on Sunday.
"People are just turning up all over the place unannounced, hadn't told us they were coming and weren't on our radar in terms of our numbers," said Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, the principal organizer of World Youth Day. "The way things are going I think we're going to beat the numbers that we're projecting."
Local officials said the city of Sydney has added an additional 4,000 train journeys and 34,000 extra bus journeys in order to accomodate the influx. However, the state government's World Youth Day Coordination Authority (WYDCA) said if 30 per cent of Sydney's commuters did not heed warnings to leave their cars at home during this week, major traffic snarls would result.