MADRID – A freak thunderstorm on Saturday forced Pope Benedict XVI to cut short his speech to an estimated million young pilgrims gathered for the church's world youth festival, giving the outdoor prayer vigil at a Madrid airfield a dramatic climax.
During the day, firefighters atop fire trucks had sprayed the crowds with water from hoses, and pilgrims sought shade from umbrellas, trees, tarps and tents in a bid to stave off the near 40-degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) heat. As night fell, a flash downpour drenched the crowd: with lightening lighting up the night sky, the 84-year-old Benedict was forced to skip the bulk of his speech and merely deliver brief greetings in a half-dozen languages.
Despite the discomfort, the scene at the Cuatro Vientos airport was nevertheless festive and colorful, with pilgrims in a rainbow of sunhats and umbrellas dancing, singing and waving their national flags as they geared up for a massive sleepover to be in place for Sunday's main World Youth Day Mass.
"There is a truly awesome number of people here and we have come to join them to celebrate our Christianity in the most universal and Catholic sense," said Joe Melendrez, a rap artist from San Antonio, Texas.
The crowd erupted in cheers when Benedict arrived at nightfall, greeted by Spain's crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia. Once it became clear he couldn't proceed with his speech because of the storm, organizers told the crowd that they had asked for more water during the day when it was so hot, and their prayers were answered.
"With this rain, the Lord sends us many blessings," Benedict quipped when he resumed his truncated remarks.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that when the storm kicked up, Benedict had been asked by his aides what he wanted to do and he insisted that he wanted to wait the storm out. The half-hour delay, he said, was due mainly to the failure of the sound system; once it was fixed and the storm passed, Benedict proceeded with the vigil program.
This is Benedict's third World Youth Day, the once-every-three-year gathering of young Catholics from around the world that was launched a quarter century ago by Pope John Paul II in a bid to reinvigorate and spread the faith among the young. It has the feel of a weeklong rock concert and camping trip, with bands of flag-toting pilgrims roaming through Madrid's otherwise empty streets to take part in prayer and education sessions, Masses, cultural outings and papal events.
"I haven't been able to catch the pope's exact words because he has spoken only in Spanish but it is an amazing experience to share these moments with so many people from so many different countries," said Joseph Maduma, a 16-year-old student from Tanzania as he awaited the vigil.
"We have come to spend the night here and really look forward to meeting lots of new friends," he said.
Nearby a group of six people from southern China fanned and shaded one of their own, a young woman who was obviously overcome by the heat. News reports said some 800 people had sought medical care and that extra water had been trucked in.
With an hour to go before the vigil began, organizers told the crowd their numbers had surpassed a million.
Earlier Saturday, Benedict celebrated a Mass with nearly 4,000 seminarians at Madrid's main cathedral and announced that he would soon proclaim St. John of Avila a doctor of the church, conferring one of Catholicism's greatest honors on the influential 16th century Spanish saint.
The title of church doctor is reserved for those churchmen and women whose writings have greatly served the universal church. There are currently 33 such doctors, including St. Augustine, St. Francis de Sales and St. Teresa of Avila. Pope John Paul II added St. Therese of Lisieux to the list in 1997, the last time one was proclaimed.
"In making this announcement here, I would hope that the word and the example of this outstanding pastor will enlighten all priests and those who look forward to the day of their priestly ordination," Benedict said.
St. John of Avila, who lived from 1500-1569, is the patron saint of Spain's diocesan clergy and was considered one of the greatest preachers of his time. A mystic born to a wealthy family, he is known for his theology of the priesthood and is particularly revered in Spain and Latin America, said the Rev. Antonio Pelayo, a Spanish priest who attended Saturday's Mass.
"He lived during a difficult period in the church's history when the clergy was very relaxed and somewhat dissolute, something that pained him a lot," Pelayo said. "St. John of Avila developed a theology for the priesthood which enabled the church to grasp and refine an important element of popular religiousness."
Benedict's announcement, while rumored, took many by surprise and drew sustained applause from the seminarians, priests, bishops and cardinals present.
Overnight, riot police again clashed with protesters opposed to the pope's visit, charging several groups that had been trying to reach the Puerta del Sol square late Friday.
Several hundred protesters had gathered outside the Atocha train station aiming to march toward Sol but were stopped before they reached their destination by police blocking the route.
The protesters resent that Spain is staging the euro50 million ($72 million) World Youth Day at a time of economic crisis. Organizers insist the event is being funded entirely by the participants, private donors and the church, though the sizeable security costs are extra.