SYDNEY, July 15 – The biggest mass ever held in Australia will officially launch World Youth Day events on Tuesday, with 150,000 Catholic pilgrims expected to attend, organisers said.
The mass at Sydney Harbour will be celebrated by the leader of Australia’s Catholics, Cardinal George Pell, and 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.
The record will not last long, however, with 500,000 people expected to attend the closing mass on Sunday, led by Pope Benedict XVI.
More than 100,000 foreign pilgrims from around the world 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 pope flew into Sydney on Sunday, but is 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.
Fisher said the pope was recovering well after his 20-hour flight from Rome.
"I was very impressed by his energy as we went walking in the garden and we were having trouble keeping up with him, and he’s 81, but very fit," Fisher told reporters.
Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi said the Pope was sticking to his regular schedule during his Australian holiday.
He begins each day by saying mass, and on Monday this was for about 10 people who work at the Opus Dei-run retreat centre where he is staying.
The pontiff filled his day with study, rest and several walks around the grounds, while in the evening a small group of chamber musicians performed pieces by Schumann, Schubert and Mozart, Lombardi said.
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 Fathers supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus – BXVI".
Pilgrims need to simply text the word Pope to a special number to receive the messages.
Four giant screens have also been erected at major festival venues around the city, including the iconic Sydney Opera House, and pilgrims who sign up will be able to send a message to the digital "prayer walls".
"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.
"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 of activists.
The coalition also plans to hand out condoms to young Catholics during a mass walk through the city on Saturday and is contesting a new law banning "behaviour that causes annoyance or inconvenience to pilgrims".
An Australian federal court was due to rule later Tuesday on whether the regulation, which carries a fine of 5,500 (5,335 US) dollars, should be overturned.
Civil rights activists say the law is so broad people could be arrested for simply wearing an anti-pope T-shirt deemed annoying to pilgrims.