SYDNEY, Australia — More than 100,000 Roman Catholic pilgrims from around the world swarmed Sydney Harbor on Tuesday, waving the flags of their countries and singing as they awaited a Mass opening the World Youth Day festival.
The star of the show, Pope Benedict XVI, remained ensconced at a retreat on Sydney's outskirts where he was resting until joining the celebrations on Thursday. The 81-year-old pope arrived in Australia on Sunday after a more than 20-hour flight from the Vatican.
The scale of World Youth Day was revealed when pilgrims arrived in droves and gathered along a waterfront near the city's landmark harbor bridge for a twilight Mass. Rites — including the Holy Communion, hymn singing and a sermon delivered by Sydney's Archbishop Cardinal George Pell — left many in tears.
Nearly 250,000 people registered for World Youth Day, more than half from overseas. By Tuesday's opening ceremony, they had arrived — thousands were staying in churches, schools and volunteers' homes. They thronged the city with their official yellow, red and orange backpacks, singing, strumming guitars and shouting greetings to strangers on the streets.
The scene resembled a city-sized school camp more than a religious gathering.
Tuesday's Mass began with a procession of groups from 168 countries, waving their flags as they entered a former commercial wharf in downtown Sydney, renamed Barangaroo.
Aborigines in traditional clothing and white body paint danced and chanted to the strains of a didgeridoo. Addressing the crowd, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd acknowledged the Aborigines and read welcomes to pilgrims in various languages, including Italian, French, Korean, the Philippines' Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia.
Rudd, who was raised in a Catholic family but now regularly attends an Anglican church, said Australia would be enriched by the pilgrims' presence. "Some say there is no place for faith in the 21st century. I say they are wrong," Rudd said to resounding cheers.
In his homily, Pell urged the pilgrims to keep the faith through self-discipline and prayer.
"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. "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."
The six-day celebration began when a giant digital countdown clock at the Gothic St. Mary's Cathedral downtown ticked past midnight Monday and flashed "G'Day Pilgrims," drawing cheers from youths who had gathered to watch.