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Pope leads 350,000 in prayer at youth festival finale

SYDNEY, July 20 – Pope Benedict XVI celebrated an open-air mass with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims Sunday to end a week of World Youth Day festivities marked by a historic papal apology for priestly sex abuse.

Bidding "arrivederci" after days of religious services and pop concerts that attracted young worshippers from around the world, the pope announced that the next World Youth Day would be held in Madrid in 2011.

The final service in the Catholic youth festival came a day after the 81-year-old pontiff said he was "deeply sorry" for the "evil" of the sexual abuse of children by clergymen.

Royal Randwick Racecourse was transformed into a sea of cheering and flag-waving Catholic devotees as the pope took to a special stage with arms upraised in greeting.

Pilgrims wait for Pope Benedict XVI ahead of the morning Mass at Randwick Racecourse.

While the Vatican’s official attendance of figure of 350,000 at the mass fell well short of the 500,000 predicted by organisers, Benedict said the entire event had been an unforgettable experience.

The pope urged worshippers to become "messengers of love" to counter a "spiritual desert" spreading in the modern world, saying their youthful energy had helped reinvigorate the church.

"The world needs this renewal," he said. "In so many of our societies, side by side with material prosperity, a spiritual desert is spreading, an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair."

The pontiff has repeatedly railed against consumerism and greed through the week and again warned young worshippers to avoid "the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships."

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The pope at the altar after arriving at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney.

The leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics received a bird’s eye-view of the massed pilgrims from a helicopter before alighting and getting into his iconic "popemobile".

He did a slow circuit of the venue, smiling and waving as mothers thrust babies up to the vehicle’s large windows to bring their children closer to the papal aura.

"It’s really the opportunity for us to build up our faith more deeply, especially for my children," said Corry Setio, an Indonesian-born Australian.

Traditional Fijian dancers in grass skirts performed for the assembled cardinals and bishops in their clerical finery before the pope delivered his speech on a stage topped with an Aboriginal design.

The German-born pope arrived in Australia a week ago to preside over the biggest Christian gathering on earth.

Its combination of prayer and pop music drew some 200,000 pilgrims, replacing Sydney’s easy-going pace with an atmosphere that combined football match fever with rock concert festiveness and religious fervour.

World Youth Day was launched in 1986 by the late pope John Paul II in a bid to help stem the flow of young Catholics away from the once-dominant church in an age of growing secularism in the western world.

But this year’s celebrations were partly overshadowed by a scandal over the sexual abuse of children by some Catholic clergy that has rocked the global church for years.

Amid pressure from victims, the pope on Saturday apologised publicly and fully for abuse in the Australian church and called for those responsible to be brought to justice.

During a mass for local clergy in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral, he expressed his shame and made his first direct and explicit apology to victims of paedophile priests.

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"Here I would like to pause to acknowledge the shame which we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious (order members) in this country," Benedict said.

"I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured and I assure them that, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering," he said.

But some activists dismissed the pontiff’s apology, saying words were not enough and that he should have apologised in front of sex abuse victims.

"Sorry may be a start but we want to see a lot more," said Chris MacIsaac, spokeswoman for the victims’ group Broken Rites, adding that she wanted victims to be treated fairly and not to be "re-abused by church authorities."

In a visit to the United States in April, the pope spoke of the shame and suffering that abusive priests had brought upon the church, but stopped short of a direct apology.

The pontiff will fly out of Australia on Monday.

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