Catholics Celebrate World Youth Day Festival in Sydney With Parade, Giant Cross

Pilgrims cheered, sang and wept as a giant wooden cross serving as the symbol of a Roman Catholic youth festival led by Pope Benedict XVI sailed into Sydney Harbor on Monday, the culmination of a yearlong journey through Australia.

A ferry carrying the 12.5-foot World Youth Day cross and Icon of Our Lady, a copy of a painting portraying Mary and Jesus, glided past the city's iconic opera house while pilgrims on board waved to those on shore.

Hundreds of followers gathered on the wharf burst into applause and belted out Australia's unofficial anthem, "Waltzing Matilda," as the boat docked and the cross was carried off the ferry for a procession through downtown Sydney.

Pilgrims lunged forward to touch the cross as it passed.

"It's a very exciting moment," said Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous. "I think at this moment, everyone is saying the journey is complete."

Benedict, 81, arrived in Sydney on Sunday but is resting from the long flight before joining the festivities on Thursday. World Youth Day, which begins Tuesday and runs through Sunday, is expected to attract more than 200,000 participants and is the largest public event in Australia since the 2000 Olympic Games.

He spent the day at a retreat on the outskirts of Sydney taking several walks, touching up his speeches for later in the week, and being treated to an afternoon concert by a local orchestra playing Schumann, Mozart and Schubert, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said.

Airports at the biggest cities were jam-packed with pilgrims flying in, and buses and trains were bringing more overland to Sydney. Thousands of young people were staying in churches and school houses or in volunteers' homes.

Benedict has raised expectations that he will apologize directly to victims of past clergy sexual abuse while he is in Australia, telling reporters he will do everything possible to achieve "healing and reconciliation with the victims." Activists in Australia have demanded the pontiff make a formal apology.

Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell said the church in Australia had apologized to clergy abuse victims a number of times, and was still struggling to help them heal. "That's the most important thing. Counseling, help, justice," Pell said.

Benedict also signaled he will discuss the need to face up to the "great challenge" of caring for the environment, noting that global warming is an issue worrying many young people.

The pope said, however, he would stay out of the political debate on what to do about climate change.

There was a minor security scare at Benedict's retreat late Monday, when a police officer in a guard unit accidentally set off what authorities described as a "distraction device," seriously burning his hands. Deputy Police Commissioner Dave Owens said the pope was never in any danger.

At Monday's procession, groups of volunteers took turns carrying the 88-pound cross and 33-pound icon along one of Sydney's main streets, which was closed to traffic. Pilgrims sang "Amazing Grace" and shouted out Australia's rallying cry: "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi, oi!" Others echoed with, "Holy, holy, holy! Spirit, spirit, spirit!"

Thousands lined the sidewalks, snapping photos and waving. Linda Wilkins raced down from her office so she could place her hand on the cross.

"It means everything to me — it's the symbol of my faith," said Wilkins, 55, of Sydney. "To touch it makes me feel I was an integral part of it."

Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, gave the cross to the youth of the world in 1984 to be carried across continents as a symbol of Christ's love for humanity. The cross has visited 400 communities in Australia and will be featured at a Mass opening the festival Tuesday.

The cross and icon were brought to a downtown park, where hundreds of pilgrims lined up to kneel before the cross, place their hands on it and pray.

Stephanie Luna, who arrived in Sydney on Sunday from the United States with members of her Laredo, Texas, diocese, leaned against a lamppost and stared at the cross, tears streaming down her face.

"We're homesick and we're exhausted, but it's a sacrifice," said the 18-year-old, who helped carry the cross through Sydney. "It was so beautiful."

The festival will culminate in a papal Mass on Sunday.