Associated Press WriterTORONTO (AP) -- With tens of thousands of young Catholic pilgrims waiting, Pope John Paul II arrived Tuesday for a week of World Youth Day festivities with those he calls the future of his church.
The frail pope, making his 97th foreign trip as the most-traveled pontiff in history, began his 11-day journey that proceeds to Guatemala and Mexico with a show of determination -- he walked down the stairs from the Alitalia MD-11 jet instead of riding a lift as in recent trips.
Bareheaded after a stiff wind blew off his skull cap, John Paul waved to the crowd of dignitaries before starting to descend, one step at a time, with the help of a cane in his right hand and an aide holding his left arm. the city.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien and other Canadian and church dignitaries greeted the pope at the bottom, and he climbed a moving platform to ride to the welcoming ceremony in a hangar a few hundred yards away.
In opening remarks delivered in English and French, John Paul note Canada's Christian roots from the first French settlers in the 16th century as a bedrock of its humanitarian values today.
"The core of your heritage is the spiritual and transcendent vision of life based on Christian revelation which gave vital impetus to your development as a free, democratic and caring society, recognized throughout the world as a champion of human rights and human dignity," he said.
John Paul thanked Toronto for welcoming the nearly 200,000 pilgrims registered for World Youth Day, calling the event crucial for preserving hope in the young.
"Too many lives begin and end without joy, without hope," he said. ... Young people are coming together to commit themselves, in the strength of their faith in Jesus Christ, to the great cause of peace and human solidarity."
A line of people then greeted the pope, including 21-year-old Timothy Pippy of Mississauga, Ontario, disabled by a crippling syndrome but still able to kiss the pontiff's ring.
"My son received a papal blessing and the holy father touched his cheek. I think I can live out my days on that," said Pippy's mother, Linda.
After the ceremony, John Paul boarded a helicopter and headed for a few days' rest at a Catholic retreat on remote Strawberry Island in Lake Simcoe, 50 miles north of the city.
In the streets of Toronto, flag-waving, chanting bands of pilgrims visited the Lake Ontario waterfront and other tourist sites before heading to the Exhibition Place fairgrounds to watch the airport arrival on a large screen.
Preparations that began two years ago were nearly completed Monday. A 160-foot cross towers over the site of the final Mass, near a field hospital covering nearly 2 1/2 square miles.
Frail and stooped, the 82-year-old pontiff departed Rome against the advice of aides who say the journey may be too much. While concerned about John Paul's health, those close to him say he is energized by the annual gathering of Catholic youth, whom he considers "the future and hope of the Church and humanity."
This year's World Youth Day comes at a time of conflict around the world, from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and subsequent war in Afghanistan to continuing strife in the Middle East. The Catholic church also faces sex scandals in the United States.
John Paul, though, seems undeterred by the likelihood it will be the most lightly attended World Youth Day since he initiated the event in the mid-1980s. Millions attended similar events in the past in Rome, Paris and Manila, Philippines, compared to the 200,000 registered so far for the one in Toronto.
Vatican Radio acknowledged Monday that this year's low attendance is attributed partly to the uncertainties of travel after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the sex abuse scandals that have shaken the American church since January.
World Youth Day activities started Tuesday with pilgrims arriving by plane, train, automobile and on foot.
"It's amazing to be with youths who don't speak your language, even though they share the same faith," said Geoffrey Bilovus of Montreal, whose family hosted Romanian visitors over the weekend.
The pilgrims, aged 16 to 35, are coming from 170 countries for activities that include catechism classes with bishops, social service, a welcoming ceremony with the pope, re-enacting the stations of the cross along a downtown boulevard, and an all-night vigil followed by the final Mass on Sunday.
Canadians who saw the pope during his last major visit, in 1984, will see a vastly different man this time. He suffers from the symptoms of Parkinson's disease -- slurred speech and trembling hands -- and hip and knee ailments that make it difficult for him to stand or walk.
John Paul will spend his first three days in Canada on Strawberry Island to rest and get over his jet lag. A golf cart will drive him around the 40-acre (16-hecare) island, and organizers say he might take a boat ride.
His first World Youth Day event is at a welcoming ceremony Thursday in downtown Toronto. He meets privately with Chretien and other political figures on Saturday before joining the pilgrims at their nighttime vigil north of the city. The Sunday Mass is at the same site.
Police promise heightened but unobtrusive security, with thousands of officers from Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Toronto city force on duty.
Groups calling for church reform and stronger church action against sexual abuse by priests are holding an alternative conference to raise issues such as women priests, reproductive health and the response to the sex scandals.