Pope visits with exotic animals

July 16, 2008 3:19:31 PM PDT
Pope Benedict XVI ended a short vacation with a visit from some of Australia's exotic animals then took up residence in a gothic cathedral on Wednesday to prepare for his debut in front of some 200,000 pilgrims at the Roman Catholic youth festival. The 81-year-old pontiff spent three days in near-seclusion at a retreat on Sydney's outskirts after making the longest journey of his three-year-old papacy to lead World Youth Day events designed to inspire a new generation of Roman Catholics.

On Thursday, the leader of the church's 1.1 billion global flock will enter the fray of tens of thousands who have come for all continents and spent the past few nights in sleeping bags on the floor of school halls or billeted with volunteers for the chance to see him.

Benedict's first official event will be to meet for talks with Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and other officials.

He then will receive a ceremonial welcome from Australia's original inhabitants, the Aborigines, on the shores of Sydney harbor before taking a boat ride past the city's landmark opera house to a former cargo wharf where he will deliver what is expected to be a significant address.

The contents of the speech, to be made before a crowd organizers say will exceed 200,000, have not been revealed by the Vatican. During the flight from Rome to Sydney, Benedict told reportersdd's government also issued an apology to native Australians for racist assimilation policies that prevailed throughout most of the 20th century.

The pope was brought by motorcade Wednesday evening to the compound of St. Mary's Cathedral, a 19th Century structure with towering twin spires in the heart of the city where he will stay until leaving Australia.

"The pope is relaxed and well after three days," Lombardi said.

Earlier, wildlife officers from the city zoo brought a red-necked wallaby, a spiny echidna, a blue-tongued lizard and other beasts to the retreat after the pope expressed interest in seeing some Australian animals. Vactican-released video showed a smiling Benedict stroking a koala and scratching it behind the ear as it was held by a ranger.

Throughout the city, pilgrims reveled at massive barbecues thrown by the church and staffed by volunteers. For days they have strutted the streets like joyously good-natured mobs, waving the flags of their home countries, singing religious songs and shouting greetings to each other.