Papal mass ends WYD fest in storm-hit Madrid

21st August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI, emerging into the sun after being lashed by a violent storm, urged 1.5 million pilgrims to share the faith Sunday as he brought a lavish Catholic youth festival in Madrid to a close.

After spending a night under the stars, the faithful cheered as the 84-year-old arrived at a vast Madrid airbase, hit by sheets of rain, bolts of lightning and powerful winds the night before.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics took his place on a tall white throne atop a massive wave-shaped stage, shaded by a giant parasol "tree", made of interwoven golden rods.

"I hope you were able to sleep despite the inclement weather," the pope said before a mass held to conclude the six-day World Youth Day celebrations, marked by a storm, blistering heat and angry protests.

"I am sure that this morning you lifted your eyes to the sky more than once, not just your eyes but also your heart," said the pope, draped in a white vestment and golden cloak and wearing a skullcap.

Many pilgrims could not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion -- the blood and body of Christ for Roman Catholics -- because gusts of wind had damaged some temporary chapels, organisers said.

They instead accepted "spiritual communion" at the mass.

One of 17 tents holding the sacrament collapsed in the Saturday night tempest, injuring seven young people who were taken to hospital with light injuries including one broken leg.

The next World Youth Day will be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, the pope announced.

"I hope to see you again in two years' time at the next World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil," the pope said in Portuguese.

The pontiff warned pilgrims from 193 nations, many of them wearing red or yellow floppy hats or fending off the sun with multicoloured umbrellas, not to try to adhere to faith without the Church.

"We cannot follow Jesus on our own," the pope told the faithful strewn across a vast esplanade -- the size of 48 football fields -- at the Cuatro Vientos airbase.

"Do not keep Christ to yourselves," he urged.

"Share with others the joy of your faith."

Also attending the Sunday service were Spain's King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia.

"This rain was a blessing. It made us laugh. We were so hot," said Ryoko Hasunuma, a nun who came from Japan with a group of about 300 pilgrims and spent the night at the airfield.

As the heavens opened on the airbase Saturday night, Benedict's skullcap was swept off and an assistant struggled to shelter the pope with a large white umbrella, which shook in the wind.

The pope, his thick white hair in disarray, gripped a copy of his sodden speech, the pages and his vestments flapping in the wind.

Pilgrims tried to take shelter under large white and yellow umbrellas. Others used whatever they could find, or simply got drenched.

Firefighters were seen checking the stage structure for storm damage.

But the pope had not considered abandoning the service, said the Holy See's spokesman, Federico Lombardi.

"Benedict XVI was determined, extremely determined to stay, just as the young stayed. He had not the slightest doubt. The storm was a parable of Christian life in which moments of difficulty are overcome by the strength of faith," Lombardi said.

The Vatican spokesman said police estimate 1.5 million pilgrims packed the airbase, spilling out onto the surrounding area as there was not enough space.

Organisers however declined to give a figure.

The pope was scheduled to meet with some of the roughly 30,000 volunteers who helped organise the event before flying back to Rome on Sunday evening.

Saturday's storm had cut short a homily by the pope in which he defended traditional marriage "in which a man and a woman, in becoming one flesh, find fulfilment in a profound life of communion".

The Roman Catholic Church has condemned the sweeping liberal reforms brought in by Spain's Socialist government in recent years, including easier access to abortion, gay marriage and fast-track divorce.

The attitude of the pope has sparked anger among the gay and lesbian community in Spain.

Spanish police Thursday foiled plans by 100 gays and lesbians to stage a kiss-in before the pope in Madrid, blocking the protesters before they could meet up.

The sheer scale of the celebrations in Madrid has also sparked angry demonstrations at a time of economic hardship, with unemployment for under-25s in Spain running at more than 45 percent.

Thousands of protesters marched in central Madrid almost daily to protest the cost but organisers say most of the cost will be covered by a registration fee from the pilgrims, and the event is a big tourist boost.

© 2011 AFP

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