Pilgrims brave stifling heat to hear pope in Madrid

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Hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims gathered Saturday in blistering heat on a vast dusty esplanade outside Madrid to hear a prayer vigil led by Pope Benedict XVI and then spend the night under the stars.

Emergency services said they had attended to more than 150 people by early afternoon, mostly for fainting and heatstroke as temperatures soared to 39 C (102 F) in the Cuatro Vientos air base.

Organisers have set up some 2,000 water fountains on the esplanade, the size of 48 football pitches, and fire trucks sprayed water over the sweltering pilgrims.

In a rock festival-style atmosphere, the youths sprawled across the ground with backpacks and sleeping bags, many waving national flags. They propped up beach parasols and umbrellas to try to fend off the punishing August sun.

Organisers appealed to them on microphones to keep their hats on, use sun cream and drink lots of water.

The interior ministry issued a warning to all Spanish residents to "stay indoors as much possible" as the country suffered one of the hottest days of the year.

The 84-year-old pope holds a prayer vigil Saturday evening at a white altar almost 200 metres (660 feet) long in front of a vast wave-shaped stage and under a giant parasol "tree", made of interwoven golden rods.

The pilgrims spend the night in the open air at the air base, before Benedict celebrates the closing mass of the August 16-21 World Youth Day festival there on Sunday morning.

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 entered the 19th century cathedral to celebrate mass for 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," the pope warned the seminarians.

"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," he said.

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.

Earlier in the morning, the pope heard confession from four young pilgrims -- two women and two men -- in one of 200 temporary confessionals set up in Madrid's city-centre Retiro park.

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.

Scores of police blocked the activists from marching into the city's central Puerta del Sol square, where clashes took place on both Wednesday and Thursday nights.

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 Catholic youth celebrations.

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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