Rain storms fail to douse fervour of young pilgrims
"Long Live the Pope!" Despite exhaustion from hours of blistering heat that was followed by a violent storm in the evening, more than one million pilgrims hailed Benedict XVI on his arrival for a closing of the Catholic youth festival on Sunday morning.
Their night under the stars was short, in tough conditions at the Cuatro Vientos military aerodrome, eight kilometres (five miles) from Madrid, from where many of the pilgrims had walked under a burning August sun the previous day.
The rain from the powerful storm which ruffled the pope on Saturday night and forced him to cut short his speech, was quickly absorbed into the dusty ground.
And even if the organisers of the World Youth Day celebrations knew beforehand that the weather forecast was bad, many pilgrims interpreted it as a sign of divine intervention.
"The rain was a blessing. It made us laugh. We were so hot," said Ryoko Hasunuma, a nun who come from Japan with a group of about 300 pilgrims.
Like hundreds of others, she spent the night outdoors in alleyways intended as emergency exits. While in the main zones of the esplanade -- the size of 48 football pitches -- most pilgrims were packed in close to each other in their sleeping bags.
Even in the zones near the 200-metre (660-foot) altar, there was not enough space and some pilgrims bedded down close to a chapel which had weathered the storm.
During the night, young people who wanted to gather there had to step over those sleeping.
"Look at that! It looks like a refugee camp," said one of the volunteers, who had treated dozens of victims of the heat on Saturday.
"What happened last night was madness. The alleyways were full and the ambulances couldn't pass," said the volunteer, who asked not to be identified.
At one point during the morning, organisers issued appeals over loudspeakers to "remain within your (assigned) zone."
"We had orders not to evacuate people who had fainted to the health centres at the camp, because there were too many people already there!" said one of his colleagues.
Many were unable to the leave the base Saturday night because of the crush of people.
"We were stuck outside," said Maria del Cacho, a 19-year-old student, "People were getting irritable, but the organisers would not let us pass until after the pope left."
The organisers decided to enlarge the area reserved for the pilgrims on Sunday, estimating that there would be 1.5 million people for the mass, as many Spanish people who were not registered came to join the ceremonies at the last minute.
Some volunteers stayed up the whole night. At about 3am, they distributed vestments for the clerics at Sunday's mass celebrated by the pope to close the August 16-21 festival.
"There are 15,000 vestments. They are new but they are not just for this occasion. The bishops and priests want to keep them. But there are still some left, and they will be distributed to parishes in poor countries," said one of the organisers, well aware that the cost of the festivities had caused much criticism amid economic hardship in Spain.
© 2011 AFP