More than 100,000 people will reportedly join the Holy Father on Sunday for celebrations in the Sicilian capital of Palermo. In the midst of recent hardships, many in the southern Italian region are looking to the Pope for words to inspire a strengthening of the social and moral fabric of the island.
The Holy Father's one-day pastoral visit to the island of Sicily will be marked by three major encounters: Mass and the Angelus in a park on the Mediterrenean Sea, a meeting with priests, religious and seminarians in the Cathedral of Palermo and a celebration with young people and families in one of the city's central squares.
Archbishop of Palermo, Paolo Romeo, told Vatican Radio on Saturday that Benedict XVI's visit will not only be a confirmation of the faith for many people but it also "aims to be a spurring moment, of taking consciousness and a greater commitment, because the needs of today's society are immense."
Sicily has been hit hard by the economic crisis, leaving many families struggling with unemployment and young people looking for a solid future, he described. There is also the incessant problem of organized crime and an increasing moral degradation that plagues the region, said the archbishop.
The director of pastoral care for culture in the Archdiocese of Palermo, Giuseppe Savagnone told Vatican Radio earlier this week that "the coming of the Pope in this moment, responds to a generic, but extremely vast and strong need to hear real, serious things that help the region to lift itself up."
Director of diocesan magazine "Condividere," Fr. Francesco Fiorino said in an editorial in the publication's most recent edition that in this context the Pope "will speak to the heart and the mind of all Sicilians.
"Obviously," Fr. Fiorino said, "he will speak to the Catholics of the island but, in line with his simple and clear style, he will not overlook an appropriate 'word' to those who expect something positive of the Successor of Peter."
This will be Benedict XVI's first time to the island as Pope. John Paul II visited five times during his pontificate, the last being in 1985.
Sicilian families have been preparing for the Pope's arrival since 2007 with an ongoing series of pastoral initiatives reaching all of the island's 18 dioceses. About 200 activities have been carried out in this time, with a specific focus on reaching out to families and young people.
The most recent initiative, a two-day conference developed to encourage the "education of hope," began on Saturday and will be closed by the Holy Father himself.
Secretary general of the Italian Bishops' Conference called the visit an "extaordinary occasion," expressing also his conviction that the papal visit lead all Sicilians to "make a commitment to reawakening a strong sense of responsibility and it will be an encouragement to look with hope and willingness to start again."