The Papal Invasion of Australia

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World Youth Day / Getty

The image of Pope Benedict XVI is projected onto a pylon during a light show on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in honor of World Youth Day Sydney 2008 on July 14, 2008, in Sydney, Australia.

In Sydney, a city devoted to sport, it's not unusual to see fans trooping through the streets, decked in team colors and chanting team anthems. Right now, there are more visitors than at any time since the 2000 Olympics. They carry the flags of many nations — Poland, Korea, Papua New Guinea, Argentina. But there's no rivalry. Groups meet on street corners and merge: "We're from Germany. You?" "Hong Kong." Handshakes all around. Then, the limits of English conversation reached, someone sings: "Oh, when the saints ..." Everyone joins in, if only to hum. They all know the same tunes. They're all on the same side: Team Jesus.

The visitors — more than 125,000 from overseas and 100,000 from around Australia — are in Sydney for World Youth Day, a week-long celebration of Catholic faith that will culminate July 21 in a Mass on the city's Randwick Racecourse. On Monday, while Pope Benedict XVI recovered from jet lag in a rural retreat, throngs chanted hymns and took turns carrying a 12-foot (3.8-m) wooden cross through the city's streets. In St. Mary's Cathedral, people lit candles and knelt to pray before a casket holding the remains of Italian youth worker Pier Giorgio Frassati, which had been shipped to Australia for the occasion. In a small convent chapel on the other side of Sydney Harbour, they did the same at the tomb of 19th-century Australian nun Mary McKillop. Both are patrons of World Youth Day and, their supporters hope, will soon be declared saints by the Church. Out in the bright blue, southern hemisphere winter day, pilgrims strolled or sat in the sunshine, strumming guitars, snapping photos, checking daily Papal text messages, and buying "I [heart] Jesus" T shirts.

The Pope has said he wants his visit to help revitalize the Catholic faith in Australia. Fewer than one in five of the country's 5 million Catholics attends mass regularly; among twentysomethings the rate is about 7%. After plummeting in the 1970s and '80s, the number of priestly vocations is growing steadily, but the average age of priests is still nearly 60. And the Church is under attack for refusing to ordain women or condone homosexual behavior as well as for its handling of cases of sexual abuse by priests and brothers. Protesters have prepared their own World Youth Day activities, foisting condoms on pilgrims and selling "Pope Go Homo" T-shirts. Some Sydney residents are also upset that the New South Wales state government has made it an offense to willfully "cause annoyance" to World Youth Day participants.

Laura, 23, from Milan, Italy, is part of a group that's accompanied the wooden cross — she likens it to the Olympic Torch — around Australia. They've received nothing but smiles, she says: "Australians are very welcoming." She hopes World Youth Day will provoke the secular to reflect more about faith: "Seeing all these people who come from all over the world — and it's a hard and long trip — maybe they will think, This must be something important." Maybe even as important as the football finals.