Pope decided to stay on through storm: spokesman

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Pope Benedict XVI never considered abandoning his prayer vigil during a violent storm that struck the airbase near Madrid where some one million pilgrims had gathered, the Vatican spokesman said Sunday.

"Benedict XVI had decided, solidly decided, to stay there, like the young people who stayed," Federico Lombardi told AFP.

"He never had the slightest doubt. The storm is a parable of Christian life in which, in the most difficult moments, things are overcome by the strength of faith."

The storm lashed the open-air service at the Cuatro Ventos (Four Winds) airbase near Madrid late on Saturday, forcing the 84-year-old pope to cut short his speech and drenching the faithful who had waited for hours in blistering heat.

One of 17 tents set up for the "Eucharist Adoration", in which the faithful adore the holy sacrament, collapsed, injuring seven people who were taken to hospital, including a girl who suffered a broken leg, Lombardi said.

He said police estimate that 1.5 million pilgrims packed the esplanade -- the size of 48 football pitches -- at the airbase, spilling out onto the surrounding area as there was not enough space.

"Today, the pope is calm, very favourably impressed by the endurance of the young people and their prayers."

When the storm hit during World Youth Day celebrations Saturday night, Benedict's skullcap was swept off and an assistant struggled to shelter the 84-year-old with a large white umbrella.

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 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 the service.

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

© 2011 AFP

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