Storm lashes pope, pilgrims at youth festival

21st August 2011, Comments 0 comments

A violent storm lashed Pope Benedict XVI and around one million pilgrims at an open-air service in Madrid, forcing him to cut short his speech and drenching the faithful who had waited for hours in blistering heat.

As the heavens opened during World Youth Day celebrations Saturday night, Benedict's skullcap was swept off and an assistant tried to shelter the 84-year-old pontiff with a large white umbrella.

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

A sea of pilgrims, by some reports more than a million, tried to take shelter under large white and yellow umbrellas at the vast esplanade -- the size of 48 football fields -- at the Cuatro Vientos (Four Winds) airbase outside Madrid.

Others danced in the rain, but the vast majority with no shelter just got wet.

When the rain eased some 20 minutes later, the pope declared to cheers: "Thank you for your joy and endurance. Your strength is greater than the rain.

"The Lord with the rain has given us many blessings. In this too you are an example."

The pope then left the stage to change and returned wearing a golden mitre, draped in a golden cloak and clutching a golden crucifix before resuming his speech.

Firefighters were seen checking the stage for storm damage before the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics returned.

Police prevented pilgrims sheltering under any structures. Six youths were slightly injured but needed no treatment when the wind blew a down a tent, a spokeswoman for the event said.

The pope was seated on a large white throne on a vast white, wave-shaped stage and beneath a giant parasol "tree", made of interwoven golden rods, when the deluge broke.

Also attending the service were Spain's Crown Prince Felipe and his wife Letizia.

The pilgrims are supposed to spend the night in the open air at the base, eight kilometres (five miles) southwest of Madrid, where Benedict is to celebrate the closing mass of the August 16-21 youth festival on Sunday morning.

As he bade farewell to the crowds, the pope said: "We have lived through an adventure together. Firm in the faith, you endured the rain.

"Before going I want to say goodnight to you all: May you rest well, with the sacrifice you are making and that I have no doubt you offer generously to the Lord, we will see each other tomorrow, God willing.

He then thanked the pilgrims for the "marvelous example" they had given. "Just like tonight, with Christ you can always face the tests of life," the pope said.

In the part of his speech that he was able to deliver he called on young people to "be afraid neither of the world, nor of the future, nor of your weakness.

"The Lord has allowed you to live in this moment of history so that, by your faith, his name will continue to resound throughout the world."

The deluge brought dramatic relief to pilgrims who had been desperately seeking any shade from the fierce August heat, some crouching behind emergency vehicles or portable toilets.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church earlier warned against "false gods" as he celebrated mass in Madrid's Almudena Cathedral.

In white cassock and a white, gold-embroidered mitre, he told 6,000 young people preparing to join the priesthood: "You may be shunned along with others who propose higher goals or who unmask the false gods before whom many now bow down.

"Approach the priesthood only if you are firmly convinced that God is calling you to be his ministers, and if you are completely determined to exercise it in obedience to the Churchs precepts."

These include "the decision to live in celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and, leaving aside the worlds goods, live in austerity of life and sincere obedience, without pretence".

Thousands of child abuse claims, to which the pope made no direct reference, have forced the Roman Catholic Church to be more aware of the psychological maturity of those entering the priesthood.

The pope drew a thunderous applause as he announced he would bestow an extremely rare honour on a Spanish saint, Saint John of Avila, by proclaiming him a doctor of the Church.

Only 33 doctors of the Church -- reserved for figures of eminent doctrine and remarkable holiness -- have been proclaimed since 1295, and the last was in 1997.

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

Thousands of protesters marched in central Madrid late Friday to protest the cost and to decry police crackdowns on earlier demonstrations.

But organisers say most of the cost will be covered by a registration fee from the pilgrims, and the celebration will be a massive tourist boost for Spain.

© 2011 AFP

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