Pope's SMS rallies thousands of young Catholics

Sydney, AUstralia - Pope Benedict texted thousands of young pilgrims in Australia on Tuesday, urging them to renew their faith as they gathered for the Catholic church's largest youth festival.

Hymns and chants of hallelujah filled Sydney's streets as hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from around the world gathered for the opening mass of World Youth Day, July 15-20.

"Young friend, God and his people expect much from u because u have within you the Fathers supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus - BXVI," read the first of the Pope's daily text messages which will be sent out during World Youth Day.

Using "u" instead of "you" is a popular shortcut among youth around the world, who send millions of text, or SMS, messages daily.

Pope Benedict arrived in Sydney on Sunday and will attend World Youth Day events from Thursday, culminating in a Sunday mass before an estimated 300,000 pilgrims.

The Pope has said he will apologize to Australian victims of sexual abuse in the church. Broken Rites, which represents abuse victims, has a list of 107 convictions for church abuse, but says there may be thousands more victims as only a few go to court.

"I'm glad there will be an apology, but the church needs to do more to alleviate the living hell of those who have endured the ultimate betrayal," said sexual assault lawyer Vivian Waller. "The church must embrace justice rather than playing legal charades," she said, claiming the Catholic church in Australia regularly used the legal system to avoid sex abuse cases.

The Pope confronted the issue of sexual abuse in the church during a visit to Washington in April, meeting victims and vowing to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood.

Some sex abuse victims plan to protest against the papal visit in Sydney, along with a group called "No Pope" which opposes church teachings on sex and marriage and new anti-protest laws which they say crush their civil liberties.

The "No Pope" group has launched a legal challenge to overturn new laws which could see protesters arrested and fined A$5,500 (US $5,340) for annoying pilgrims with anti-Catholic T-shirts or by handing out condoms.

Reflecting the religious fervor in Sydney, "Ratzinger Rules" was spray painted on a war memorial overnight. Josef Ratzinger is the birth name of Pope Benedict.

Police have closed some 300 roads and erected concrete and wire security fences across the central business district, in a security operation not seen since the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Sydney is treating World Youth Day as bigger than the Olympics, urging workers to take holidays. Organizers estimate the event will earn the city up to A$200 million.

But the Catholic church hopes the biggest windfall will be religious in a country where church attendances are falling. Despite being led by the oldest Pope elected, the church believes the 81-year-old pontif can still engage with young people.

In Australia, home to the world's biggest gay and lesbian mardi gras and where abortion and stem cell research is legal, the Catholic church's teachings often fall on deaf ears.

Some 5 million Australians describe themselves as Catholic, but less than one million attend Sunday mass and the number may have dropped to about 100,000 in the past 5 years.

"We're a very secular society in Australia, we're very materialistic and I think we've lost something in all of that," said World Youth Day ambassador John Herron.

Organizers are expecting more than 150,000 pilgrims, 26 cardinals, 400 bishops and up to 4,000 priests at the opening mass on Tuesday on the shores of Sydney Harbor.

"That will make it the biggest mass we've ever celebrated in Australia," said Bishop Anthony Fisher.