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 before joining the celebrations Thursday.
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.
Thousands converge on Sydney
Nearly 250,000 people registered for World Youth Day, more than half from overseas. By Tuesday's opening ceremony, they had arrived — thousands of young people were staying in churches, schools and volunteers' homes. They thronged the city with their official yellow, red and orange backpacks, singing songs, 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 national 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 as Australia's original owners and read welcomes to pilgrims in various languages, including Italian, French, Korean, the Philippines' Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia.
"G'day, and have a great time down under," Rudd said.
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."
Parts of city at a standstill
As they flooded into the waterfront site, pilgrims scarfed down traditional Australian meat pies, sang and chatted. Parts of the city came to a standstill.
A group of French pilgrims wore stuffed roosters on their heads. Nearby, parishioners from Nottingham, England, sported green felt Robin Hood hats and matching shirts.
"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.
Later, revelers bopped to a pop concert whose performers pranced on a floating stage in the harbor.
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.
There were signs Tuesday the pope is going high-tech. Registered pilgrims received the first of what will be daily text messages from Benedict: "Young friend, God and his people expect much from u because u have within you the Fathers supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus." It was signed "BXVI."
Meanwhile, a court on Tuesday struck down a law that banned causing "annoyance" to the pilgrims, clearing the way for a protest Saturday by activists opposed to Benedict's policies on contraception, abortion and homosexuality.
"We now have a lot more confidence to take to the streets to condemn Pope Benedict's policies," said Rachel Evans, one of the plaintiffs. "We are glad that the court has ruled that we do have the freedom of expression to communicate our political views."
The New South Wales government had granted authorities extra powers for World Youth Day, saying they were the same as those exercised at big sporting events. Critics said the regulations impinged on free speech.
On Thursday, Benedict will get a traditional Aboriginal welcome and tour Sydney's harbor by boat before delivering a major address at Barangaroo. A papal Mass on Sunday before thousands at a racetrack in the city is scheduled to end the proceedings.