TORONTO - The sidewalks are filled with flags. Tens of thousands of Roman Catholics attending the weeklong World Youth Day 2002 milled around the city streets yesterday, saying penance in outdoor parks, attending Mass, shopping for souvenirs, singing songs, and building their anticipation for today's official welcoming ceremony with Pope John Paul II.
More than 200,000 young pilgrims moved in small clusters following their flag-bearers waving the colors of New Zealand, Italy, France, Colombia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Korea, Sweden, Mexico, Croatia, the United States, and 147 other nations.
“This might be the last time we will be at World Youth Day with the current Pope,” said Michelle Hussem, 18, of Horn, the Netherlands. She and a group of six other Dutch girls, from 17 to 23 years old, were shopping for souvenirs at a gift store on Yonge Street. Their overall contingent numbered 630 from three Dutch parishes.
Nicole Meijer, 22, of Rotterdam, said she is attending her second World Youth Day. She was at the gathering in Rome in 2000 and said the Pope, who is now 82, surprised her with his energy and enthusiasm.
“I didn't see an old man. He seemed so young,” Ms. Meijer said.
The Rev. David Reinhart, chaplain of youth and young adults for the Toledo Diocese, performed the Sacrament of Reconciliation for several hours yesterday in Due in Altum Park. Several hundred priests and penitents sat face to face on folding chairs under the trees, their confessional booths consisting of two low purple walls formed in a “V.” Signs listing the language of choice were taped to the booths.
“It was very touching to say confession in such a peaceful setting,” said Father Reinhart, who later donned a Toledo Mud Hens cap along with his clerical collar.
Diane Verhoff, director of youth and young adult ministries for the Toledo Diocese, said yesterday that she experienced the global impact of World Youth Day in an unusual way. She celebrated a birthday on Tuesday and when a group of Toledo pilgrims began singing “Happy Birthday” to her, groups of smiling youths from different nations joined in on the universally recognized melody but singing the words in their own native languages.
Ms. Verhoff and Father Reinhart said that most of the 700 youths from the Toledo Diocese will assemble several hours before the Pontiff speaks this afternoon at Exhibition Place, the sprawling, 192-acre lakefront area filled with exhibit halls, amphitheaters, and concession stands.
Yesterday's WYD schedule was relatively light, with youths attending catecheses, or times of prayer, discussion, and reflection, in the morning, followed by Mass. The afternoon and evening were designated as a Youth Festival, featuring live music, and the day's theme was “You are the Salt of the Earth.”
Pope John Paul arrived here Tuesday but has not made any more public appearances since his remarks at the airport. The Pontiff, who has been suffering from Parkinson's disease and arthritis, was reported to be in relatively good health yesterday as he spent the day at the Strawberry Island Retreat Centre, a 45-acre island in Lake Simcoe north of Toronto that is operated by the Basilian Fathers.
“We all want to see the Pope,” said Johanna Mahecha, 24, traveling with a group of six others from Bogota, Colombia. “We also want to meet other people who love Jesus.”
Elsewhere in Toronto Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, fielded questions from the thousands of teenagers; it seemed inevitable that one would bring up “the scandals.”
But when a woman from Iowa did, pressing Bishop Gregory for answers, she did not want to know why there had been so many widely publicized cases of child sexual abuse by priests, or what church leaders were doing about it.She asked how to respond to people who would not stop mentioning it, exaggerating its dimensions.
“With pride,” Bishop Gregory told her. “Never, ever allow anyone to make you believe that the broken, the sinful, the faulty parts of the church are the whole church, or are in any way a reflection of who Jesus is.”
The New York Times contributed to this report.