SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Pope John Paul II praised motherhood Thursday in a stop at a cathedral where he honored a 19th century Australian nun who battled the male church heirarchy to found an order of sisters.

``It was must be clear that the church stands firmly against every form of discrimination which in any way compromises the equal dignity of women and men,'' the pope said at St. Mary's Cathedral on the second day of his Australian stop.

The pope said he was convinced that the role of women is ``in no way diminished but is in fact enhanced by being related in a special way to motherhood _ the source of new life _ both physical and spiritual.''

The pope was breaking no new ground. But his words were expected to resonate in Australia, which has a strong feminist movement and where the rival Anglican church recently began ordaining women as priests.

Shortly after his arrival at a rally in downtown Sydney, a small group of protesters held banners calling for the ordination of Catholic women _ a concept vigorously opposed by the pope.

``Women will be allowed to become priests eventually,'' said protest leader Marie Louise Uhr. ``Maybe not during this pope's lifetime, but it is inevitable.''

On Thursday the pope is scheduled to beatify Mother MacKillop at an outdoor ceremony expected to attract about 200,000 worshippers.

Mother MacKillop founded the Sisters of St. Joseph in the 1860s to bring charity and education to the poor. The order continues her social welfare and teaching mission in various countries.

Beatification is the last step before possible sainthood.

The pope, slow-moving but smiling, shook hands and touched the faces of hundreds of flag-waving children outside the cathedral, built on the site of the first Roman Catholic church in Australia in 1821.

Mother MacKillop was excommunicated for five months in 1871 by a local bishop in a struggle for control of the order.

The Vatican intervened and lifted the excommunication. However, she was regularly at odds with the senior male clergy until her death in 1909.

During an evening address Wednesday, the pope appealed for religious and ethnic harmony throughout the world.

Flanked on stage by Protestant, Orthodox, Islamic and Jewish leaders, the pontiff called for further ``ecumenical dialogue'' with an aim to fill Christ's wish at the Last Supper that ``all may be one.''

John Paul also praised the freedom, justice and tolerance that has contributed to Australia's multicultural society. The Pacific nation's growth has been fueled by immigration, first from Europe and more recently from Asia. Now, one-third of its people come from a non-English-speaking background.

More than 3,000 people gathered at Kingsford-Smith International Airport to greet the pope on his arrival from Papua New Guinea earlier Wednesday.

The pope, who began his Asian tour with a five-day visit to the Philippines, leaves Sydney on Friday for his last stop, Sri Lanka.