Blanket coverage for Sydney's chilled Catholic pilgrims

Sydney, Australia - Piles of blankets and woolly jumpers began appearing on the steps of Sydney's Catholic churches Thursday as residents of Australia's biggest city responded to an urgent call to help stave off hypothermia among 125,000 foreign pilgrims in town to meet Pope Benedict XVI. The weeklong World Youth Day celebrations are being held in the chill of the Southern Hemisphere winter, timing that was lost on those who arrived clad as if for lazy days of sand and surf on the city's iconic Bondi Beach.

At last count, 56 young pilgrims were being cared for after they came down with influenza.

Chief health officer Jeremy McAnulty said the sick pilgrims went into isolation voluntarily after it was explained to them that an epidemic of flu could spread among the faithful and wreck everyone's hopes of happy days with the pope.

"Luckily, with the overwhelming number of people being world youth and, therefore, young, we would not expect long-term consequences, but that's one of the considerations we have in mind," McAnulty said.

Fortunate pilgrims are billeted with accommodating families, but more than 20,000 are bedding down on concrete floors in draughty sports stadiums far from the city centre.

Giles Massot, a 19-year-old pilgrim from the Canadian city of Vancouver, said it was comical that so many participants were complaining of the cold.

"It's just like an early autumn day for us," he said. "It's only cold if you came from a hot country."

The youth gathering winds up Sunday with a papal Mass expected to draw 500,000 people.