Pope holds mass in storm-damaged Madrid base

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Pope Benedict XVI, emerging into a dazzling sun after being lashed by a violent storm, celebrated mass Sunday for 1.5 million young pilgrims at a vast Madrid air base.

After spending a night under the stars, the faithful cheered as the 84-year-old arrived at the base, hit by sheets of rain, bolts of lightning and powerful winds the night before.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics then took his place on a tall white throne atop a massive wave-shaped stage, shaded by a giant parasol "tree", made of interwoven golden rods.

"I hope you were able to sleep despite the inclement weather," the pope said.

"I am sure that this morning you lifted your eyes to the sky more than once, not just your eyes but also your heart."

Many pilgrims could not receive the holy sacrament -- the blood and body of Christ for Roman Catholics -- because gusts of wind had damaged some temporary chapels, organisers said.

They would instead accept "spiritual communion" at the mass, which is the climax of August 16-21 World Youth Day celebrations, said a spokesman for the organisers.

One of 17 tents holding the sacrament collapsed in the Saturday night tempest, injuring seven young people who were taken to hospital with light injuries including one broken leg.

"Do not keep Christ to yourselves," the pope told the pilgrims from 193 nations.

"Share with others the joy of your faith," he said.

The pilgrims were from countries "filled with young people who are looking for something greater and, because their heart tells them that more authentic values do exist, they do not let themselves be seduced by the empty promise of a lifestyle that has no room for God," the pope said.

Also attending the Sunday service were Spain's King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia.

"This 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 and spent the night at the airfield.

As the heavens opened during World Youth Day celebrations Saturday night, Benedict's skullcap was swept off and an assistant struggled to shelter the pope with a large white umbrella, which shook in the wind.

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

Pilgrims 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 used whatever they could find, or simply got drenched.

Firefighters were seen checking the stage structure for storm damage.

But the pope had not considered abandoning the stage, said the Holy See's spokesman, Federico Lombardi.

"Benedict XVI was determined, extremely determined to stay, just as the young stayed. He had not the slightest doubt. The storm was a parable of Christian life in which moments of difficulty are overcome by the strength of faith," Lombardi said.

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

He said police estimate that 1.5 million pilgrims packed the esplanade at the airbase, spilling out onto the surrounding area as there was not enough space. Organisers however declined to give a figure.

But 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 almost daily 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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