VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI is taking a new step in the Vatican's environmental campaign, leading a youth festival this weekend where participants will use recycled prayer books, biodegradable plates and backpacks made from reused nylon.
About 300,000 young Roman Catholics are expected to attend the festival in Loreto, home of Italy's most famous Marian shrine, in a run-up to next year's World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia.
The festival coincides with the church's "Save Creation Day" and has a decidedly eco-friendly theme. Each participant will be given a knapsack made of recycled nylon containing a hand-cranked battery recharger, three sets of biodegradable plates and three bags for recycling trash.
Prayer books for Benedict's Sunday Mass are made of recycled paper, hydrogen cars will be on display and trees will be planted in areas of southern Italy recently devastated by forest fires to make up for the carbon dioxide emissions generated by the festival, organizers said.
"The message about caring for the environment will be entrusted not just with words, but with the young people's gestures and the things they use," said the Rev. Paolo Giulietti.
The Italian company Novamont said the use of 400,000 of its biodegradable plates would amount to a reduction of C02 emissions of eight tons. As a result, it said, Loreto will be an "environmentally low-impact" event.
The Vatican has been going greener under Benedict, installing photovoltaic cells on the roof of its main auditorium to convert sunlight into electricity and joining a reforestation project aimed at offsetting its CO2 emissions.
Just this week, the pope bemoaned the destruction wrought by the recent forest fires in Greece and Italy, saying the blazes destroyed "humanity's precious environmental patrimony."
Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, frequently spoke out about the need to care for God's creation. And the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, is known as the "green patriarch" for his environmental initiatives.
The head of the Italian bishops' conference, Monsignor Angelo Bagnasco, told Vatican Radio it was the responsibility of the church to teach its young about caring for the planet.
The youth rally has a poignant aspect: Loreto was dear to John Paul and was the site of his final pilgrimage in September 2004.
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The city is famous for the Holy House, a simple stone cottage that Catholic tradition says was the home in Nazareth where the Virgin Mary grew up and received the annunciation.
Legend has it that angels miraculously transported the structure from the Holy Land, where it had come under threat during the turmoil of the Crusades, and brought it to the Loreto area in central Italy near the Adriatic coast in 1294.
Benedict is due to visit the cottage for a moment of prayer Saturday night after taking questions from youths. On Sunday, he will celebrate a morning Mass, then return to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, for the rest of his summer holiday.
The Loreto meeting, organized by the Italian bishops' conference, is in many ways an Italian warm-up for World Youth Day, to be held in Sydney next July 15-20. The 80-year-old Benedict is expected to journey to Australia for the event.
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