Pope leaves after youth festival in storm-hit Madrid

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Pope Benedict XVI told 1.5 million pilgrims to spread the faith Sunday as he brought to an end lavish Catholic youth festivities in Madrid marked by a violent storm, blistering heat and protests.

After spending a night under the stars, the faithful cheered as the 84-year-old arrived at a vast Madrid airbase, 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 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 before celebrating a mass that concluded the six-day World Youth Day celebrations.

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

They instead accepted "spiritual communion" at the mass.

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

The next World Youth Day will be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, the pope announced to pilgrims from 193 nations, many of them wearing red or yellow floppy hats or fending off the sun with multicoloured umbrellas.

Later, as the pope left Madrid-Barajas airport, he told King Juan Carlos I that he had a final message for the faithful.

"Now I ask you to spread throughout the world the profound and joyful experience of faith which you had here in this noble country," he said.

Benedict said Spain, which has ushered in fast-track divorce, easier access to abortion and gay marriage, could hold on to its Catholic soul.

"Spain is a great country whose soundly open, pluralistic and respectful society is capable of moving forward without surrendering its profoundly religious and Catholic soul," he said.

Spain had made this clear, the pope said, by ploughing its people and materials into "an undertaking of immense consequence and promise: that of helping young people to become more deeply rooted in Jesus Christ, our saviour".

He offered his sympathy to Spanish people facing difficulties, including the unemployed, after a visit that was hit by almost daily protests over the cost of the lavish celebrations.

"I would like to assure the people of Spain of my constant prayers, especially for married couples and families who are facing various kinds of difficulties, the needy and infirm, the elderly and children, as well as those who have no work," he said.

Spain has a national unemployment rate of more than 20 percent and the rate for under-25s is running at more than 45 percent.

For many in Spain, the most memorable moment of the visit will be when the heavens opened on Saturday night at the Cuatro Vientos airfield just as the pope had begun to give a homily defending traditional marriage.

"This rain was a blessing. It made us laugh. We were so hot," said Ryoko Hasunuma, a nun who came from Japan with a group of about 300 pilgrims and spent the night at the airfield.

The storm swept off the pope's skullcap and an assistant struggled to shelter the pope with a large white umbrella, which shook in the wind.

The pope, his thick white hair in 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. 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 service, 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.

© 2011 AFP

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