Tens of Thousands of Catholic Pilgrims Gather for Opening Mass in Sydney

Tens of thousands of Catholic pilgrims from around the world crammed into an area along Sydney Harbor Tuesday, waving flags of their home countries and singing as they awaited a Mass opening the World Youth Day festival.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived Sunday, and was resting at a secluded retreat on the outskirts of Sydney until Thursday, when he starts a busy round of meetings, takes a cruise on Sydney Harbor and addresses the pilgrims. The festival culminates with a papal Mass on Sunday.

Aboriginal Australians in traditional clothing and white body paint danced and chanted to the unique strains of a didgeridoo in a welcoming ceremony at Barangaroo, along the harbor.

"Some say there is no place for faith in the 21st century. I say they are wrong," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said, to cheers from the pilgrims.

"You are welcome guests in our land. May each of you be enriched by your time here among us in Australia, just as you enrich Australia by your time here with us," he said.

Rudd welcomed the legions in various languages, including Korean, Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesian.

Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney, urged the pilgrims to keep and spread the faith through self-discipline and prayer in a homily before thousands. He also referred to the distance they had traveled.

"Many of you have traveled such a long way that you may believe that you have arrived, indeed at the ends of the Earth," Pell said, the sun setting behind him. "If so, that's good, for our Lord told his first Apostles that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem and to the ends of the Earth."

Pilgrims huddled together on the cold pavement during the two-and-a-half-hour Mass, some wrapped in their countries' flags. For some, it was the official beginning of a spiritual journey.

"I don't think we had any comprehension of what we were coming to until we came tonight," said Mary Bennett, 60, who came here with members of her New Zealand church. "Just seeing this has done wonders."

Nearly 250,000 people have registered for World Youth Day, more than half of them from overseas. Thousands of young people were staying in churches and school houses or in volunteers' homes, and were visible throughout the city, hoisting their official yellow, red and orange backpacks.

The six-day celebration began at midnight, when a giant countdown clock ticked over to read "G'Day Pilgrims" — Good Day, Pilgrims — drawing wild cheers from the people who gathered at St. Mary's Cathedral.

Registered pilgrims received the first of daily inspirational text messages from the pope: "Young friend, God and his people expect much from u because u have within you the Fathers supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus - BXVI."

Every evening during the event, a light show of 20 images of the pope and the Australian outback will be projected on a pylon of Sydney's Harbor Bridge in celebration of World Youth Day.

On Tuesday, pilgrims scarfed down traditional Australian meat pies and mingled along the waterfront. A group of French pilgrims wore stuffed roosters on their heads, which they said were a symbol of France. Nearby, a group of parishioners from Nottingham, England, sported green felt Robin Hood hats.

"You see so many nationalities and you realize the church is not just Nottingham. It's a world church," said Father David Cain, who traveled to Sydney with 20 members of the Nottingham diocese.

Ronny Guenker, a 32-year-old German pilgrim, said it was a good sign that the pope was visiting the youth festival "because we are the church of the future."

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.

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.

Also Tuesday, a federal court struck down a new law that banned people from annoying pilgrims, ruling that it restricted free speech.

The ruling cleared the way for the NoToPope Coalition — a group of gay rights and secular activists opposed to the pope's policies on contraception, abortion and homosexuality — to hand out condoms and coat hangers — symbolizing abortions — to pilgrims at a Saturday demonstration.