Catholic pilgrims pour into Madrid for youth festival
Thousands of Catholic pilgrims descended on Madrid Monday for a spectacular youth festival expected to draw more than million people for cultural events and an open-air mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI.
The World Youth Day festival, which lasts from Tuesday to Sunday, has drawn criticism over the costs of welcoming the head of the Roman Catholic Church as Spain battles an economic crisis.
But WYD officials say most of the cost would be covered by the pilgrims themselves -- arriving from 193 countries -- and would be massive tourist boost for the city of Madrid.
A huge stage has been erected at the central Plaza de Cibeles, one of Madrid's most emblematic sites.
The square will host three of the four main events during WYD: the opening mass on Tuesday, the papal welcome two days later and the Stations of the Cross ceremony on Friday.
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands will be entertained by pop groups at the Cuatro Vientos air base southwest of the capital, where the pope holds a "Prayer Vigil" in the evening.
The young pilgrims will spend the night under the stars at the air base with duvets and rugs on a vast esplanade the size of 48 football fields.
The 84-year-old pontiff celebrates mass there on Sunday morning at a white altar almost 200 metres (660 feet) long in front of a wave-shaped stage and under a giant parasol "tree", made of interwoven golden rods that will protect him from Madrid's brutal August heat.
Madrid's airport was bustling Monday with tens of thousands of excited young pilgrims carrying large backpacks, studying maps to find out how to get to the church or schools where they will be staying, or waiting for buses.
Many were chaperoned by priests or nuns, and snapping photos of each other.
Veronica Jackson, from Ireland, said this is her fifth visit to the World Youth Day celebrations, launched by pope John Paul II in 1986 as a way to revitalize the faith among young Catholics.
"There's a problem in Ireland about young people going to church and it's good for them to come here because they experience a young Church".
Maria Mendez, 37, with a group of about 50 from the Dominican Republic, arrived from Barcelona where they had attended a large open-air mass.
"We had a lovely experience, very positive. We are tired but excited to be here to see the pope," she said.
Mauro Prieto, a 23-year-old Brazilian student, came with a Catholic youth group from Sao Paulo, all wearing T-shirts in the green and yellow Brazilian colours.
"I am happy to have this chance to see Spain of course but most of all it is opportunity to celebrate my faith with other people who also share it," he said.
Benedict last visited Spain in November 2010 for a trip in which he railed against social reforms introduced by Spain's Socialist government such as same-sex marriage, easier access to abortion and fast-track divorce.
One government minister, Ramon Jauregui, has already warned that he did not consider it "appropriate" for the pope to criticise Spanish society again when he comes this week.
Some 150 groups that oppose the pope's visit plan to protest Wednesday on the eve of his arrival.
They include groups representing gays and lesbians, feminists as well as leftist political parties.
The country's 15-M "indignant" movement -- launched on May 15 against the management of the economic crisis, soaring unemployment and political corruption -- is also mulling a series of protests.
© 2011 AFP