Youths from across the world hail 'Benedicto' in Madrid

18th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims gave Pope Benedict XVI a rapturous reception as he presided over a lavish ceremony Thursday during Catholic festivities in a sweltering Madrid.

The adoring welcome was in sharp contrast to street protests by thousands the previous night over the high cost of the visit and the six-day million-strong World Youth Day festival in the midst of Spain's economic hardship.

Police late Thursday blocked off a central square where some 150 anti-pope protesters had gathered, and also dispersed gays and lesbians who attempted to stage a mass kiss-in on Benedict's route through Madrid.

Wearing a white cassock with a gold and crimson stole draped around his neck and a white skullcap on his head, the pope sat on a giant white throne on the stage in Madrid's emblematic Plaza Cibeles square.

The 84-year-old pontiff was shielded from the August sun by a giant white umbrella and cooled by water vapour descending from above the stage, which was adorned with a giant image of Mary and Jesus.

A sea of pilgrims, most wearing the yellow T-shirts and sunhats of the festival, packed the square and surrounding avenues before him at the evening ceremony.

Christians from the five continents presented him with traditional gifts on stage: from bread and salt from a Polish woman to Pacific island flowers from a young Australian man.

The leader of the world's estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics arrived in Madrid earlier Thursday to lead the rock-festival style celebration, which lasts until Sunday and which organisers say has drawn faithful from 193 nations.

Benedict was earlier handed the keys to the city by the mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon.

He then walked through the majestic archway of Puerta de Alcala, one of the five historic gateways to the city, accompanied by 50 young pilgrims -- 10 from each of the five continents.

He was presented with a small olive tree and treated to a equestrian dressage show by riders in traditional Spanish costumes, before continuing on in the popemobile to the Plaza Cibeles for the welcoming ceremony.

In his address to the faithful, the pontiff appealed to them to resist the temptation to follow "fashionable ideas."

"To all those who are content to follow fashionable ideas, they take shelter in the here and now, forgetting true justice, or they take refuge in their own opinions instead of seeking the simple truth.

"Indeed, there are many who, creating their own gods, believe they need no roots or foundations other than themselves."

The pontiff was greeted at Madrid's airport at midday Thursday by King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia before parading in his popemobile through the streets.

Hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters crammed bridges and pavements, throwing confetti and balloons over the popemobile.

The crowd chanted "Long live the pope!"; "Benedicto, Benedicto!" and "This is the youth of the pope!"

The party atmosphere was shattered the previous night when thousands of anti-papal protesters and hundreds of young Catholics hurled insults at each other in the central Puerta del Sol square.

Lines of riot police separated the two sides late Wednesday, before they finally moved in with batons swinging to dislodge the anti-pope demonstrators.

More than 100 protest groups took part, uniting many causes, including those seeking a change in the Church's attitude to gay rights and those fighting for a clearer separation of Church and state.

Anti-riot police blocked off the square Thursday after about 150 activists gathered to protest the pope's visit.

About 100 pilgrims decried the protesters from outside the police perimiter shouting: "Shame!"; "Hypocrites!"

Protesters - including some priests -- are fuming over the official 50.5-million-euro ($73-million) price tag, excluding the cost of police and security, of the August 16-21 celebrations.

Nationwide unemployment stands at more than 20 percent while youth unemployment is running at more than 45 percent.

In a speech at the airport, the pope voiced sympathy with the unemployed, saying "many young people look worriedly to the future, as they search for work, or because they have lost their job or because the one they have is precarious or uncertain."

In comments to reporters on the plane, he called for the economy to work for people, not profit.

"The economy cannot function as a self-regulated economy," he said. "Man must be at the economy's centre, which is not profit but solidarity."

Spain's economy has been one of the worst hit by the global economic downturn and its output has grown by only 0.2 percent in the last quarter.

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

In the end only two men managed to skirt the security clampdown and kiss for the cameras just as the pope passed by along the major Madrid artery of Calle Serrano.

© 2011 AFP

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