Storm interrupts pope speech, drenches pilgrims

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A violent storm forced Pope Benedict XVI to interrupt his speech Saturday, sweeping off his skullcap, shaking the stage and drenching masses of pilgrims at a Madrid airbase.

As the heavens opened, an assistant tried to shelter the 84-year-old pontiff with a large white umbrella, which was shaking in the strong wind.

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

A sea of pilgrims, by some reports more than a million, tried to take shelter under large white and yellow umbrellas. Others danced in the rain and the vast majority with no shelter just got wet.

When the rain eased at least 20 minutes later, the pope declared to cheers: "Thank you for your joy and endurance."

"Your strength is greater than the rain," he added.

"The Lord with the rain has given us many blessings. In this too you are an example."

The pope then left the stage to change and returned wearing a golden mitre, draped in a golden cloak and clutching a golden crucifix.

Firefighters were seen checking the stage after the storm before the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics returned.

The pope was seated on a large white throne on a vast white, wave-shaped stage, protected by an umbrella and beneath a giant parasol "tree", made of interwoven golden rods when the deluge broke.

"You were extremely warm this afternoon and you wanted water. We are going to wait for a few more minutes, counting on your prayers and see if this stops," an organiser said on the loudspeaker during the interruption.

The pilgrims are supposed to spend the night in the open air at the base, eight kilometres (five miles) southwest of Madrid.

The deluge brought dramatic relief to pilgrims parched in searing August heat.

The interior ministry in Madrid 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.

Many pilgrims, desperate to find any shade, crouched behind emergency vehicles or portable toilets.

Some had walked up to 10 kilometres (six miles) from central Madrid on a "green" route suggested by the organisers.

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.

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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