Roughly one million pilgrims were expected in Milan Friday for the first day of the Catholic Church's 7th World Meeting of Families. Over 100 speakers from 27 countries are scheduled to speak at the event through Sunday, when Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate mass on his first visit to the northern city as pontiff.
Archbishop of Milan Angelo Scola said Benedict's three-day visit showed "extraordinary character" given that papal stays rarely exceed one day. On Friday the pope is scheduled to attend a concert of Beethoven's Ninth, directed by Daniel Barenboim, at the famed La Scala Opera House. Milan's mythical San Siro soccer stadium will be another venue for the pope, when he meets children set for the Catholic rite of confirmation at Saturday lunchtime.
Benedict will meet families in the town of Bresso, 8km north of Milan, on Saturday evening and say Mass at Bresso Airport on Sunday morning.
The last official papal visit to Italy's financial capital was by Benedict's predecessor John Paul II in 1984.
The Vatican said Thursday that the pope was especially looking forward to the Meeting of Families given the "poison" from last week's news that his butler was an alleged mole behind leaking sensitive Church documents to the Italian press. Speaking at a press conference in Milan, Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley said the leaks had "disappointed" Catholics in the United States "for the great trouble suffered by the pope, and for the fact that this happened in his own house". "The need for transparency in the Church is very important," he added. "But the Church also has the right to keep some documents secret".