Madrid mass launches six-day party for pope
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered for a giant open-air mass in the heart of Madrid on Tuesday, launching a lavish six-day youth party for Pope Benedict XVI.
The faithful will pack into the emblematic central Madrid square of Cibeles for an inaugural mass celebrated by Madrid's archbishop, Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela.
A massive white stage decorated with an image of Mary and Jesus has been built in the square, named after a stone fountain featuring the Roman goddess of nature on a chariot hauled by two lions.
More than a million Roman Catholics from 193 nations are congregating in the capital for the World Youth Day celebrations.
The 84-year-old pontiff will be welcomed in Cibeles square when he arrives on Thursday.
The expense of staging the event has sparked howls of protest in some quarters in a country tightening its belt and suffering a jobless rate of more than 20 percent.
Church officials say most of the costs will be covered by the pilgrims themselves, who must pay for the privilege, and the event will be a massive tourist boost for the city of Madrid.
Spain's public works minister, Jose Blanco, said the visit had been prepared in an "austere manner".
The minister told Europa Press news agency at the weekend that as a Roman Catholic he will join the highlight of the celebrations: the pope leading Sunday mass at Cuatro Vientos air base southwest of Madrid.
But he also defended the rights of protesters against the visit.
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 protests.
The pope presides over a Stations of the Cross ceremony on Friday in Cibeles square.
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of believers will be entertained by pop groups at the Cuatro Vientos air base. The pope will hold a "Prayer Vigil" in the base in the evening.
The young pilgrims will spend the night under the stars at the base with duvets and rugs on a vast esplanade the size of 48 football pitches, hoping forecasts of rain prove wrong.
The pope 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.
Around 80 percent of the roughly 450,000 people who have registered for the event have already arrived in other Spanish cities and were expected to make the trip to Madrid by Tuesday, organisers 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.
© 2011 AFP