SYDNEY, Australia, July 15, 2008 -- On the first day of the Catholic "faith fest" known as World Youth Day, the city of Sydney swarmed with flag-carrying youths from around the world.
They descended today on the city center, bridges and harbor area in a burst of color and noise as they walked together in close packs, cheering and singing in different languages. Most wore red, orange and yellow colors chosen to be the colors of the event or carried multi-colored, hand-out backpacks.
Three hundred streets have been closed off in downtown Sydney with concrete and wire barriers set up to direct the youths to their gathering points while the city readies itself for what has been billed as an event that rivals the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
More than 200,000 people are expected to attend the papal ceremonies in Sydney later in the week with about 125,000 already registered to arrive from as many as 170 countries. The U.S. contingent is by far the largest overseas group — notably prominent here today — with about 20,000 youth and their accompanying prelates expected so far.
World Youth Day is actually a six-day event that's often dubbed a Catholic-style Woodstock with hundreds of concerts, films, theater performances scheduled each day alongside the masses, over-night prayer vigils and faith-discussion groups.
Many of the youth sleep in make-shift, dormitory-style lodgings set up in schools or parishes in the city and eat at various citywide canteens.
World Youth Day's opening mass was celebrated today in Barangaroo by Australian Cardinal George Pell, against the setting sun in Sydney's harbor. Pope Benedict XVI was not there; he will join the international crowd here when he arrives, escorted by a flotilla of boats, in Sydney harbor on Thursday afternoon.
After a day of walking in the unseasonably warm sun, the young people who gathered for the mass seemed excited just to be here for the first of many religious ceremonies they will attend in Sydney. Waving their national flags and chanting, they watched Aboriginal performances staged in front of the red altar, but later went quiet as they knelt and prayed during the mass.
Leo Hunt, a 19-year-old business administration student from California State University, travelling with his church from Los Angeles, has been in Australia since last Wednesday. He's staying with a host family in Wollongong, south of Sydney, and learning about the Australian way of life. This is his second trip away from home and his first World Youth Day.
"I came because I want to know where I stand in God's eyes," he said. "By the time this is over I hope I will have a true understanding of Christ and it will change my life."
He believes he has already been changed by the experience, having lived with his Australian host family for just five days. "I understand more how they see us Americans," he said
Hunt admitted to not knowing much about Pope Benedict but said he had seen him on TV a few times. "I think he is good guy," he said. "When he came to New York, he spoke well to the young people there.
"I loved Pope John Paul II; he set a high standard for Pope Benedict."
Sebastian Naquet, 21, who travelled from St. Catherines, Canada, with 33 others from his parish, said, "I love seeing every single country represented here, all these flags, it really sets the mood."
He said he's a regular churchgoer and agrees with the pope on all issues.
So does his friend, 19-year-old Patrick Pietuszko, who said, "I like sharing my faith with other young people from around the world but I've met a lot of young people here who are not even Catholic; Christians who are just happy to be part of this event."
This pope's predecessor, John Paul II, started World Youth Day 1984. It is now held every three years in a different country. The location of the next event will be announced Sunday, the last day of this one, as is traditional.
Maxime Pontgelard, 22, a French student from Brittany, went to to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. There, he saw Pope Benedict soon after he was elected and when he was still unknown to most Catholics. He told ABC News that he enjoyed that World Youth day so much that he had to be in Sydney this year.
"I love this event," he said. "There are lots of people of different nationalities; you can meet people of different countries, cultures, exchange e-mail addresses and continue to be in touch after this."
Pontgelard admitted that he doesn't go to church much back at home and doesn't always agree with the church or the pope. Still, he loves prayer and believes World Youth Day revitalizes his faith.
Like Maryanne Kua, a teacher from Papua, New Guinea, who came with a group of 43 from her church, many people here hope for some spiritual change in their lives after leaving Sydney. "I wanted to come and hear what the pope has to say and see him for myself," Kua said.
Nozomi Okuno, an 18-year-old student form Kyoto, Japan, came with 100 others in her group. "I was told this trip would change my life and that I would enjoy it so I had to come," Okuno said. "I am very excited."
Hannah Atkinson, 17, of Ojai, Calif., said, "I came here to meet a whole bunch of people and see the pope. He's amazing and so influential.
"I hope to become more aware, more forgiving after this trip. I hope the pope will open my eyes and he will give us the power he wants to give us."
While World Youth Day got underway in the city, the pope continued his rest in a rural retreat outside Sydney away from the public eye.
His day was much like it was Monday his first day of rest after the long 20-hour flight from Rome, the longest of his papacy so far. He spent a quiet, tranquil time celebrating mass, studying his speeches, praying and strolling on the grounds.
He will move to Sydney and stay at Cathedral House from Wednesday evening, ready for his first public appearance in the city Thursday.