I originally blogged about World Youth Day back in February. Now that World Youth Day in Madrid is only 48 days away, and the Pope’s official plans have been unveiled, we can report on several World Youth Day firsts.

Among them are: the fact that more youth have pre-registered at this point than have pre-registered for any previous World Youth Day, the fact that Pope Benedict XVI will be hearing confessions during this World Youth Day, for the first time at World Youth Day, the Holy Father will be meeting with young university professors and religious sisters, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have created the first-ever “virtual WYD pilgrimage.”

According to Zenit, the Pope will be hearing the confessions of several young people on Saturday morning, August 20 in the Jardines del Buen Retiro before celebrating a 10 a.m. Mass for seminarians. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that they’ve scheduled the Pope for the sacrament as part of the official itinerary.

“The Christian cannot live without love. Moreover, if he doesn’t encounter true love, he cannot even call himself fully Christian,” Pope Benedict XVI told a group of youth at St. Peter’s Basilica in March 2007 prior to hearing confessions. In the Sacrament of Confession, he said that, “love and the mercy of God move your hearts. ... You experience in this way the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with the Church, and recovery of the state of grace, if you have lost it.”

Another World Youth Day first, is that WYD organizers announced this week that a record number - 440,000 youth - have already signed up for the event. That’s a record enrollment for 48 days out. Among them will be approximately 25,000 pilgrims from the U.S.

“It is an epiphany of the Christian faith on a truly global scale. And young people - especially in our old Europe, deeply secular and secularizing - have a special need for all this,” said the President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, at a June 28 Vatican press conference.

The culminating Mass takes place Sunday morning at Cuatro Veintos Air Base. So far, 745 bishops, 13,455 priests, and 4,585 seminarians are planning to be there. More than 60 U.S. Bishops will be participating in WYD Madrid.

Of special note to English-speaking WYD pilgrims, will be the “Love and Life: A Home for English-Speaking Pilgrims,” center located at Madrid’s premier civic and sports arena, the Palacio de los Deportes. A Mass specifically for U.S. pilgrims is scheduled at the facility the morning of Saturday, August 20.

Activities at the center, scheduled around the WYD program of events, will include Masses and devotions, catechesis sessions, concerts, speakers, testimonies, prayer, movie screenings, and more. The air-conditioned facility seats 15,000 in its main event hall and its exhibition areas will contain a chapel specially constructed for WYD, as well as informational displays, an art show and support for the young visitors to Spain’s capital city. It will also offer them a place to rest from the summer heat.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will be providing the animating team for Friday’s catechesis session at the center and is also involved in offering a lectio divina experience on Friday evening after the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross). U.S. Bishops will be present at the site throughout the “Youth Festival” times to interact with the young pilgrims. Several U.S. bishops will provide catechesis at the site as well as at other locations. USCCB is also sponsoring a concert before the Mass on Saturday offered by Oregon Catholic Press and World Library Publications, beginning at 9:00 a.m. At the conclusion of the Mass, the pilgrims will be “sent forth” by the bishops to the Cuarto Vientos Airport.

The Knights of Columbus and the Sisters of Life are sponsoring the “Love and Life” pilgrim center and have worked closely with USCCB’s WYD coordinators, Rick McCord and Sister Eileen McCann, CSJ. The center will be opened to all WYD participants free of charge. Co-sponsors include Holy Cross Family Ministries, Canada’s Salt and Light Television Network, the Apostleship of Prayer, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), World Youth Alliance and the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.

For information and updates on activities, performers and speakers programmed at the “Love and Life” site visit www.wydenglish.org.

For those who can’t go to Madrid this summer but wish to follow WYD events from home, the USCCB’s Communications Department has launched a first-ever “Virtual Pilgrimage.” Through a Facebook application and website for non-Facebook users individuals can create an avatar and use it to participate in the virtual pilgrimage.  A Google map provides visuals of where pilgrims are coming from and where they are in Madrid —uniting pilgrims from across the U.S. and world.

The USCCB has also created a Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Virtual-World-Youth-Day/155152027881863) where virtual pilgrims can “participate” in WYD by viewing live video feed from Madrid, following twitter feeds and blogs, and uploaded photos and videos from the event. Non-Facebook users who wish to create an avatar can go to http://www.virtualworldyouthday.org/.

Here’s the official papal itinerary:

9:30 a.m.  Departs from Rome’s Ciampino airport
12:00 Arrival at Barajas Airport where a welcome ceremony will take place

7:15 p.m. The Pope will join a group of young people to pass under the Puerta de Alcala in the city’s Plaza de Independencia before moving to Plaza de Cibeles for a welcome from youth.

Private Mass in the chapel of the Apostolic Nunciature

10 a.m. Courtesy visit to the Spanish king and queen in the Palacio de la Zarzuela

11:30 Meeting with young religious sisters in “Patio de los Reyes” at the Monastery of El Escorial.
Meeting with 2,000 young college teachers in the Basilica de San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Lunch with several WYD pilgrims at the Nunciature

5:30 p.m. Official meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

7:30 Stations of the Cross in Plaza de Cibeles.

Morning Pope will hear confessions of several young people at the Jardines del Buen Retiro.

10:00 a.m. Mass for seminarians in the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Real de la Almudena.

5:00 p.m. Meeting with the WYD organizing committees at the Apostolic Nunciature, followed by a visit to the Fundación Instituto San José, a center for people with disabilities run by the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God.

8:30 p.m. Prayer Vigil with youth at Cuatro Vientos Air Base.

9:00 Arrival at Cuatro Vientos and Popemobile tour of the area.

9:30 Closing Mass of WYD begins. Followed by Angelus.

Lunch with Spanish cardinals and the papal entourage at the Apostolic Nunciature.
5:00 p.m. Pope leaves Nunciature.

5:30 Meeting with World Youth Day volunteers at the IFEMA Fairgrounds.

6:30 p.m. Official Farewell Ceremony at Barajas Airport.

7:00 p.m. Plane departs for Rome.