World's biggest Christian festival launched with Sydney mass
Tue Jul 15, 7:53 AM
SYDNEY (AFP) - The world's biggest Christian festival opened Tuesday with a spectacular harbourside mass for up to 150,000 pilgrims taking part in World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney headed by Pope Benedict XVI.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a committed Anglican, made a surprise appearance at the start of the open-air service to welcome pilgrims from around the world to the week-long event.
Rudd, taking to the stage on Darling Harbour after a stirring traditional welcome dance by Aborigines, described Catholic World Youth Day as a great celebration of life, faith and hope.
"Too often in the history of the world, when young people travel in great numbers to other parts of the world, they do so in the cause of war, but you are here as pilgrims of peace," he said.
"Some say there is no place for faith in the 21st century, I say they are wrong.
"Some say that faith is the enemy of reason, I say also they are wrong," Rudd told the pilgrims, welcoming them in several languages, including German, Italian, French, Korean and Bahasa Indonesia.
The mass -- celebrated by the leader of Australia's Catholics, Cardinal George Pell -- was attended by 26 cardinals, 400 bishops and 3,000 to 4,000 priests, said spokesman Bishop Anthony Fisher.
"That will make it the biggest mass we've ever celebrated in Australia, the grandest mass in Australia," Fisher said ahead of the service.
The record will not last long, however, with 500,000 people expected to attend the closing World Youth Day mass on Sunday, led by the Pope.
"Briefly we are here in Sydney at the centre of the Catholic world," Pell told the faithful at the mass.
Around 125,000 foreign pilgrims are in Sydney for the six-day event, along with a similar number of young Australians who have registered their participation.
World Youth Day, a celebration of the Catholic faith aimed at rejuvenating the church, has been held in a different host city around the world every two or three years since 1986.
The pontiff flew into Sydney on Sunday, but was resting and recovering from jet-lag at a semi-rural Catholic retreat on the outskirts of the city ahead of his formal arrival by "boat-a-cade" in the harbour on Thursday.
Benedict has introduced a new element for the Sydney celebration, harnessing technology to send an inspirational mobile phone text to pilgrims each day.
The first of the texts, sent Tuesday, read: "Young friend, God and his people expect much from u because u have within you the Father's supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus - BXVI".
"We wanted to make WYD08 a unique experience by using new ways to connect with today's tech-savvy youth," said Fisher.
Also making an attempt to connect with the pilgrims are protesters angered by the Pope's opposition to contraception.
They began handing out condoms to Catholic worshippers in Sydney on Tuesday after a court overturned a law aimed at stopping anyone from "annoying" the pilgrims, saying it undermined free speech.
Activists had complained that the law could lead to arrests and fines of up to 5,500 dollars (5,335 US) for simply wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that could be deemed annoying to those at the festivities.
"We will be sending off a welcome letter accompanied by condoms to 325 places where pilgrims are being housed," said Rachel Evans of the NoToPope Coalition, which took the case to court.
Some young pilgrims fled as Evans wasted no time in exercising her new freedom, handing out condoms outside the court.
But after the mass, pilgrims had a chance to let their hair down when Australian pop performers took over the stage for a harbourside concert stretching into the night.
"This is us celebrating our faith, it's all about enjoying ourselves," said pilgrim Cassie O'Farrell, who travelled from Ireland for the festival.
"I love the feeling of unity we have here, even though there are so many of us from different parts of the world."